Real Rights and Imaginary Rights

Modern Ideologies carry on their cultural revolution by invoking “the rights of man,” the cry of the French Revolution. Radical feminism justifies legalized abortion as “reproductive rights” or as “the right to privacy.” Proponents of same-sex marriage rationalize their demands as a matter of civil rights due to all minorities. Advocates of euthanasia consider physician-assisted suicide as the right to die with dignity. However, ideology invents rights that do not correspond to the nature and dignity of human beings and denies the simple truth that Edmund Burke in Reflections on the Revolution in France succinctly formulates: “Men have no right to do what is not reasonable, and to what is not to their benefit.” The rights of man demanded by ideology do not correspond to what Burke calls “the real rights of man” founded in human nature and civil society such as the right to life, property, liberty, and the pursuit of human happiness. This fanaticism about imaginary absolute rights exaggerates the ideal of freedom to allow virtually anything in the name of “choice,” whether it is abortion, euthanasia, or same-sex-marriage. The more that ideology glamorizes the revolutionary notion of “the rights of man” to justify self-aggrandizement, the more it denigrates moral duty as man’s obligations to others.

Gustave Dore, Dante's Appeal To Heaven

Gustave Dore, Dante’s Appeal To Heaven

None of the modern ideologies have any sense of the Roman ideal of duty Cicero expounds in his treatise On Obligations (De Officiis) where he explains the nature of justice in all human relationships: “for there is no aspect of life public or private, civic or domestic, which can be without its obligation . . . . Honourable behavior lies entirely in performance of such obligations, and likewise base conduct lies in neglecting them.” Cicero defines the nature of duty as benevolence to one’s fellow man, “for we are not born for ourselves alone . . . men have been begotten for men’s sake to be of service to each other.” These obligations are owed to family and children, country and friends, and even to enemies in wars. The sense of duty even demands the return of a favour “in greater measure than we have received for our benefit.” The Romans extolled this virtue of pietas or honor because they identified all members of the human race by their humanitas, their common humanity.

In its pursuit of self-interest or power in the name of rights, freedom, or choice, ideology, however, disavows the quintessential human obligations that form the foundation of human society, what Cicero calls “the human fellowship ordained by nature” that unites all men to the family of the human race. In short, the glorification of rights culminates in power, and the love of power produces tyranny and the mentality of “might makes right”—not the Roman sense of service, obligation, or justice to others. The exercise of the imaginary rights espoused by ideologues denies the real rights of other persons, most especially the powerless, the young and the elderly. The imaginary right to slavery robs the black slave of his dignity. The imaginary “right to choice” in legalized abortion violates the pre-born child’s right to life. The imaginary right to marriage and adoption claimed by same-sex couples deprives children of a normal family shaped by the complementary virtues of both a father and a mother.

True wisdom, on the other hand, clearly distinguishes between imaginary rights invented by ideologues and natural human rights intrinsic to man’s rational and moral nature. Wisdom does not separate rights from duties because it recognizes both man’s duty to do justice and his right to receive justice. These rights and duties of course derive from man’s divine and spiritual nature:  human beings possess an innate, God-given, fixed, essential nature that directs their actions and purpose to do good and avoid evil. Man by nature is ordered to render justice to all people and receive justice from others. Man is as naturally disposed to exercise duties to others as he is oriented to stand erect and to contemplate the heavens. As Beatrice, Dante’s guide in the Paradiso, explains to him as he marvels at the quickness of his flight through the heavenly spheres, his speedy progress toward God and truth is determined by his spiritual and moral nature to know and love God.

It is as natural as a stream of water moving downward because everything created has a nature, a nature that moves according to a wise design: “You should not, as I see it, marvel more/ at your ascent than at a river’s fall/ from a high mountain to the valley floor.” Natural law, as C. S. Lewis explains at the end of The Abolition of Man, obligates care for the young and the elderly and enjoins the doing of justice. To claim “rights” while renouncing duties is unnatural, immoral, and irrational. Man’s spiritual, divine nature—ordered to justice– forbids the exploitation or manipulation of other human beings. Whereas ideology operates under the premise that, in O’Brien’s words from Orwell’s 1984, “Men are infinitely malleable,” and that there is no such thing as a human nature in the universal sense, the classical-Christian tradition constantly affirms the reality of an unchangeable human nature. Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas hold that man by nature desires to know, man by nature is a rational animal, man by nature is a political animal, and man by nature is endowed with inviolable human rights like life, liberty, property, and human happiness that are “inalienable.”

True wisdom honors the past and respects traditions, always building upon ancient foundations and preserving continuity. In Burke’s words, “Besides, the people of England well know, that the idea of inheritance furnishes a sure principle of conservation, and a sure principle of transmission.” Natural law and the perennial philosophy are not fashionable intellectual trends that come and go according to the times but enduring truths capable of development and refinement. The universal truths persist in all times, places, and cultures as C. S. Lewis illustrates in Mere Christianity: “Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of double-crossing all the people who had been kindest to him. You might just as well try to imagine o a country where two and two made five.” All the moral precepts he cites—the law of beneficence, the law of magnanimity, the law of mercy, the law of good faith, the law of justice—derive from the sacred writings, philosophers, and religious traditions of all cultures from the Chinese to the Old Norse to the Hindu to the Babylonian to the Greeks and Romans to the Jews and Christians.

This moral wisdom traces its continuity from the ancient world to modern times, from Sophocles to Cicero to St. Paul to St. Thomas Aquinas to the Catholic Church to C.S. Lewis. Antigone in Sophocles’ play Antigone speaks of “the unwritten unalterable laws/ Of God and heaven . . . . They are not of yesterday or today, but everlasting.” Cicero in On Duties writes, “. . . we are all subject to one and the same law of nature: and, that being so, the very least that such a law enjoins is that we must not wrong one another.” St. Paul acknowledges that the Gentiles who do not know the divine law of the Ten Commandments nevertheless possess the knowledge of good and evil known to all men: “When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law” (Romans 2: 14). In his treatise on law St. Thomas Aquinas comments, “ . . . the light of natural reason, whereby we discern what is good and what is evil, which is the function of the natural law, is nothing else than an imprint on us of the Divine light.” And C. S. Lewis writes, “The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of imagining a new primary color, or, indeed, of creating a new sun and a new sky for it to move in.” Thus wisdom inherits, conserves, and transmits as old birds teach young birds how to fly. Lewis explains: “In a word, the old was a kind of propagation—men transmitting manhood to men: the new is merely propaganda.”

Mitchell Kalpakgian, Ph.D. has completed fifty years of teaching beginning as a teaching assistant at the University of Kansas, continuing as a professor of English at Simpson College in Iowa for thirty-one years, and recently teaching part-time at various schools and college in New Hampshire. As well as contributing to a number of publications, he has published seven books: The Marvelous in Fielding’s Novels, The Mysteries of Life in Children’s Literature, The Lost Arts of Modern Civilization, An Armenian Family Reunion (a collection of short stories), Modern Manners: The Poetry of Conduct and The Virtue of Civility, and The Virtues We Need Again. He has designed homeschooling literature courses for Seton Home School, and he also teaches online courses for Queen of Heaven Academy and part-time for Northeast Catholic College.
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