Rights Talk in the 2016 Election

Find the developing series on issues to consider this election season here.

There is a reason why our politics are so ugly, and it is of course not a new reason. We yell at each other without listening when it comes to policy, who the best candidate is, and why one’s own – or other persons’ – “rights” are always at issue.

To set our modern “rights talk” in context, I beg your patience for an admittedly much-too-quick jog through a history that may be helpful for those of us who will vote in national elections this November. If we are to step out of the deluge of focus-grouped messaging, attack ads, and internet memes and think clearly, and hopefully help others to do the same, taking cover under some very good ideas may be a good idea. Chief among these ideas is the idea that “rights” does not mean much without a shared understanding of the human person, how he will best flourish, and the Source billofrightsof these rights.

Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue is widely regarded as the most important work of modern virtue ethics – the philosophical discussion of which habits or dispositions best enable true human flourishing. The virtue ethics project began, or began again, after Elizabeth Anscombe’s seminal 1958 essay, “Modern Moral Philosophy”, in which the author set two courses for subsequent work in the subject. The first would be a “philosophy of psychology” that would more adequately illuminate the reasons that motivate and define actions; the second would be to dispense with words that are used with force, but have become meaningless in a world that no longer has a shared sense of God and his law, and thus become little more than blunt objects of abuse – resorting instead to a language of virtue and flourishing that could be fruitful even among nonbelievers.

MacIntyre’s efforts to take up Anscombe’s challenge in After Virtue and other works are widely recognized as the most successful attempt to understand historically and philosophically how we got to this place of moral incoherence, where we can only yell at and past one another. We obviously can’t go into all of this here, but one cannot recommend highly enough MacIntyre’s magnum opus, which, though rigorous, is actually fairly accessible.

Of the several key questions MacIntyre poses, one of the most crucial is “Nietzsche or Aristotle?”, the title of the chapter in which he grants these two giants the honor of having the most coherent moral programs on offer. The Enlightenment dismantled, on MacIntyre’s view, the framework of traditional Aristotelian morality which had dominated after Aquinas, but it failed to present a coherent framework as an alternative. That Nietzsche realized this and exposed the errors of the Enlightenment and remaining Christian attempts at creating a moral obligation is to his credit, but where Nietzsche left the conversation should trouble us all.

When MacIntyre wrote After Virtue, he was not yet Catholic, which made his concluding proposition all the more strange:

If my account of our moral condition is correct [one characterized by moral incoherence and unsettlable moral disputes in the modern world], we ought to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.

This is why writers like Rod Dreher and others are discussing, amidst the rapid advance of the Culture of Death in these days, the “Benedict Option” – some sort of strategic retreat for Christians that, while not a total and unrealistic abandonment of modern culture, would allow families a chance to raise children and present an authentic Christian alternative to the decay around us. The attempts at a secularized language of shared morality have failed, and among these are the attempts to reduce our moral responsibilities to respecting the “rights” of others, since “rights talk” is now being used to batter Christians into silence and submission on everything from life to marriage to education.

Published six years after After Virtue, Mary Ann Glendon’s Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse largely arrived at an agreement with MacIntyre and Anscombe. Glendon found in her own historical analysis of the language of rights an insufficient basis to sustain the use of the term among people whose disagreements about more substantial questions go unaddressed. She augmented her position somewhat later – while skepticism about the meaningfulness of rights talk is well founded, it remains the most promising way for people of radically different worldviews to try to arrive at a path forward for society. Having represented the Vatican at some major international events such as the United Nation’s meeting in Cairo in 1993, Glendon concedes that calling upon whatever moral capital remains from such documents as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights may be the best we can do right now, and she even appears hopeful about the possibilities.

Pope Saint John Paul II, who appointed Glendon to lead the Vatican delegation in Cairo, also, following his predecessors, used the language of rights. But he clearly and consistently sought to re-ground moral and theological debates on what he called a more adequate anthropology – a more complete view of the human person as made in the image of God. The person is an individual, but never merely so: he is made for community, for communion, true to the nature of the Most Blessed Trinity. From this truth of the human person as gift comes the two great commandments: to love God with one’s whole heart and soul, and to love one another as we would be loved.

Thus, can a man like Thomas Jefferson, a child of the Enlightenment but still bound by what remained of Christian tradition in his time, compose that most famous American moral doctrine:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

The idea that there is a moral demand on us – beyond our desires, beyond our Will to Power – is incoherent, even to Jefferson, without an appeal to God the Creator as the giver of dignity and rights.

So in the era of a “right” to “marry” a person of the same sex, “reproductive rights” that allow or for some even require the killing of an innocent human being, “rights” to complete sexual satisfaction with consequences paid for by others… we see why many have given up hope in “rights talk.” The way it is used – even by those we have elected to lead this nation – not in a Jeffersonian sense, much less in a fuller Catholic sense of the moral demands that arise naturally from human dignity, is now Nietzschean: It is a demand for power, for radical autonomy, and it feels no need to reason with those who disagree. The term “rights” is now used confidently as a weapon by those who are openly hostile to the laws of nature and nature’s God.

The Catholic Christian cannot expect fruitful dialogue based merely in the rapidly evolving secular understanding of “rights talk.” We have a different grounding for our political engagement with our brothers and sisters, which comes with an obligation to bring the moral and ethical conversation back again and again to the first Commandment. Our Creator not only gave us the Law in the Decalogue, He gave us His Son, who is the Law, who is Love. It is He who determines which rights the absoluteness and contingency of rights, because it is He alone who embodied what is good, true, and beautiful.

It is fine to point to shared reference points in the American tradition, such as the Declaration and the Constitution. These documents are far from perfect given their inadequate anthropological assumptions, but they are among the greatest mistakes in history, setting in motion some of the greatest flourishing as well as some incredible errors. What they get wrong has led in part to our current impasse over “rights”, but that does not mean that they cannot be a meeting place for those of good will (very important distinction) who disagree. Of course they are far from sufficient. The Catholic must not only first form himself and his family in the faith and partake regularly in the sacraments of Penance and especially the Eucharist, but he must also reach out authentically to the lost and bring them closer to Christ.

Engaging in political debates merely on the terms of our culture is a good way to get dragged into the abyss with the ecstatic and flailing children of Nietzsche. Catholics must be unafraid to insist that the priority of life, marriage and family is clear, and that our necessary obligation to the poor and marginalized cannot be outsourced to a government that openly attacks the Church. These issues are very much at play in the upcoming elections, what with the selection of judges, state-level legislation, and the growing list of “executive actions” we have allowed our president, and likely his successors, to get away with.

But if we must meet on the grounds of “rights”, we must also, always, seek the face of Christ with a love that is genuine and unafraid, and thus attractive to the one who can be reached.

sphelanStephen Phelan is Director of Mission Communications for Human Life International. He has produced three documentaries for HLI that were broadcast worldwide on EWTN, and his work has been published in First Things, Crisis Magazine, the Truth and Charity Forum, and several other outlets.
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