Professor at Cleveland– Marshall College of Law, Ohio, political analyst David Forte questions public awareness of the most fundamental values in society: human rights
by David Forte
How do we know we have rights? Where do they come from? What are they for? There are many answers given to these questions, but most of them are unsatisfactory. Some say that our rights come from the State. That idea is not as unusual as one may think. Many nations, particularly European, conceive of everything in society as derivative of the State. This is the positive State, a Western invention, a State in which all human action, all human freedom, all of human rights, are defined (and thereby created) by law. Others, particularly Americans, may say that the Constitution gives us our rights. But if your rights come from the State, or even from a Constitution, then you–that is, you as a subject, and “I,”–truly do not possess any rights at all. They are only permissions or entitlements granted to you by the political order.
Suppose, instead, that someone says that he has rights because he is an individual. The answer is attractive, but it is still inadequate. How are rights related to you as an individual person? If, perchance, someone is referring to the idea that his rights derive from natural law, then he has some substance to his argument. But I put aside the question of natural law here because most people today in America do not think of their rights in that manner.
Instead, when many people say they have individual rights, they mean they possess certain rights. Much follows when people regard rights as possessions. “I have a right!” they say with proprietary assurance. But if, indeed, rights are possessions, they are external to the person, just as all other possessions are. They are not connected to the person as a person.
Rights and human will
Others today think of rights as the expression of the will, against which no moral consideration has any sway. “I have a right to choose,” some say, speaking of their right to end the life of their child. Rights as expressions of the will are morally limitless.
The idea of a morally unaccountable right carries with it some serious consequences. Tying rights to the will reduces both the person and the right. The will is only an impulse directed toward some object perceived at the moment as some kind of good. It is not reason. It is not spirit. It is not in itself the understanding of experience. Claiming one’s rights solely on the basis of one’s will makes one less of a full personality.
Similarly, the idea that rights are only expressions of the will turn rights into mere capacities or instruments. As a capacity, the right becomes dependent on the person’s ability to use it. If he cannot exercise it, then, in a real sense, he does not have the right. As a capacity, the right is also necessarily limited by the capacities of other persons. Such a scheme of rights creates interpersonal conflicts as each of our wills is posited against the other. Such a scheme of rights turns us into autarchic individuals, jealously guarding a privacy space within which we can exercise our rights without hindrance. If these are our rights, they are puny indeed.
So how can we find a more robust idea of rights, rights that are intrinsic to the person, as irreducibly inalienable, and integral to one’s very being?
Let us begin with that which experience tells us to be true: the ultimate desire of every person is happiness. Happiness is the ultimate good of every person because it is the ultimate fulfillment of one’s humanity. Now, the same people who mistake rights as possessions also mistake happiness as mere pleasure. But happiness is not that transient. Rather, happiness attends one’s very experience of the truth. To know the truth–to experience the knowing of the truth–is the inbuilt trajectory of our lives. We see that in Scripture. “Lord, that I may see!” “Everything now covered up will be uncovered, and everything now hidden will be made clear.” ( Mt 10:26)
All of life is a search for the light, a quest for the truth. All religious have pilgrimages to sacred places to experience our inner quest for the truth. The Biblical type for our life’s pilgrimage is the journey of the Magi to the stable. Guided only by their imperfect understanding of the signs of heaven, they traveled toward the truth. The Epiphany was not just an historical event. It was an experience of the truth. A faith-filled journey of life is filled with little Epiphanies, lights to guide us on the way to Him who is light itself.
With our eyes directed to the light, with our desire for happiness firmly acknowledged, we are now in a position to understand what rights really are. Rights are the essential attributes of our humanity that permit us to experience the journey toward light and truth. They include life; the right to seek; to learn; to express; to listen; the right to help others (such as our children) experience the journey; the right to believe in the journey itself (faith); the right of friendship (free association), for the journey is communal and none of us can accomplish it on our own.
These are not puny rights. These are robust, full-throated rights. These rights are not tied to the vagaries of capacity or the varieties of will. They are essential and integral to the very idea of human existence in time and space. Any person who would deny me these rights does not just limit my capacity or frustrate my will. Any person who denies me these rights seeks to deny me my humanity.