The story I learned in civics class, which I suspect is familiar to many, went something like this: government is formed to promote the general welfare and secure liberty, but government is the greatest threat to individual liberty and thus requires checks and balances. Especially important is the individual’s check over and against the state, given our natural rights.
Fair enough. That story still makes much sense to me, and I don’t object. Still, it’s apparent that rights talk can—in fact, has—become an obsession beyond all reason and sense. There is a right to pornography? There is a right to kill the unborn child? There is a right to withhold information from parents while encouraging students to irrevocably damage their bodies? If you consider the many indecencies of our society, a false view about rights seems at play. We’re in love with freedom, with our liberty, but too often that liberty has no shape or contour other than freedom itself, choice for choice’s sake, and is not grounded in a sense of responsibility for our community’s flourishing. Autonomy, however, is not a good just as such, but can be used for good or ill. And the perceived good of the free-standing individual does not per se trump loyalty to associational goods.
I believe in natural rights and think reason competent to ascertain and judge them, but it seems increasingly needful to link rights to obligations and to consider rights in less individualistic terms. When we consider rights, the story of civics class prompts us to imagine the rights of the individual far more readily than we consider the rights of groups or associations, and, thus, when untethered from actual duties, individual claims run rough-shod over the associations on which persons depend. We do accept the legal privileges of corporations and clubs, but it’s not, I suspect, where our imaginations go first.
Given the challenges we face, particularly when it comes to parental rights, education, conscience, and religious freedom, we should expand our imagination, and we should think far more about the freedoms of associations. Franklin is supposed to have said after the signing of the Declaration, “we must all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately;” unless we learn to value and protect association, our private commitments and rights are less likely to withstand the current degradations.
We have rights, to be sure, but they are grounded upon and do not expand beyond our obligations; obligations are first. We have the natural right to religious freedom, for instance, because we are duty-bound to seek truth, especially truth about God. Parents have rights over their children’s education because they are obliged to educate and rear their children, for another example. If we have some duty to fulfill, and would be derelict if we did not act on that duty, we thereby have a right to fulfill that duty.
Rights presuppose obligations, which, of course, means that rights are not free-floating claims about just anything we might want, nor freedom from any limits that confine or annoy us. However, if rights (incorrectly) are supported by not much more than our wishes, however strongly felt or interpreted as vital to identity, the entire enterprise of rights becomes an untethered, irrational power-play. It becomes all but inevitable that those with the strongest desires will use rights to cudgel the rest of us into submission, sometimes thwarting our genuine rights by no more than their whims. (See, for instance, the various school boards foisting sexually inappropriate curricula into the schools over the well-reasoned objections of parents who, after all, have the primary responsibility to educate their children.)
As opposed to rights understood as hovering over the individual’s whims, as some sort of protective and enabling mantle, rights understood within a pattern of obligations and duties reveal people’s social entanglement. I have duties to my children, and thus rights about their education and claims I can make on the local school board. Since I have a duty to God, and since religion is not a solitary endeavor but caught up in community, not only I but also my religious community has prerogatives and claims. In fact, the Church as a corporate entity has claims tantamount to the claims of a person, and, indeed, is a corporate person.
From this perspective, rights are not so solitary and individualistic. Yes, individuals have rights, but they have them because of their social entanglements and obligations; so, too, do groups and corporate persons have rights, and for the same reasons. The thicker and more robust the entanglements, the more robust the rights, and the more they should be protected. The rights of the natural family and the rights of the Church are thus among the most important rights. Therefore, the rights of the natural family quite easily trump the claims made by the pornographers and drag queens to access the public library. This isn’t even close. So also, the freedom of religious entities, the libertas ecclesiae, is more robust than simply a claim to private belief and conscience. It includes the right of the Church to act and speak in public affairs and to enact its duties without unwarranted interference.
Those addicted to individualistic rights, especially those addled enough to think rights are justified by whims and desires, will probably find this objectionable, for they value freedom understood as a kind of indifference. Freedom, they think, is the ability to choose x or not-x without constraints. They value choice or autonomy in itself; but that, to use a line from Alasdair MacIntyre, is the “freedom of ghosts,” the freedom of men without substance or real identity.
Yet humans have real identity, an identity bequeathed to them by virtue of being human, and it is inextricably social and political. For those of us not ghosts or seeking to become ghosts, a flourishing life is understood as possible only within networks of giving and receiving, as MacIntyre has suggested. Neither beasts nor gods, we are dependent rational animals, and dependence is non-optional. We do not live, and we cannot live well, without the network of duties and obligations of communities that give and receive. This is true of the family. This is true of the parish. This is true of the school or college. And also the club, the neighborhood, the civic group, and the marketplace. In such networks we not only survive but learn and acquire the virtues of a fully human, fully responsible life. Roger Scruton phrased it this way: “it is through ties of membership that we become fully persons, deriving from these artificial persons the sense of identity without which the natural person remains incomplete and unfulfilled.”
Now, since rights follow upon obligations, if the good life requires membership in networks of giving and receiving, and if those networks bequeath duties to us, then we have rights to those networks and the burden is on others, including the state, to avoid all unjustified interference with the functioning of those networks, and even to support them. The natural family is the fundamental network, and thus any state apparatus, including the public school, may not interfere without a just reason. Teachers, school boards, and departments of education, unless parents are derelict, serve children only with the permission of the parents, and have themselves no right to teach children anything parents decline to permit. So, too, states should not only not interfere with a parochial school’s curriculum, but should adopt school choice policies. School choice rather obviously follows upon the role of parents, and tax dollars should follow students to any legitimate primary or secondary school of their choice. Religious entities and their schools should be not merely left alone but encouraged and privileged by the state.
For too long we’ve imagined the rights of parents, rights of conscience, and religious freedom in overly individualistic ways, which have encouraged a privatization of these rights. Recall how the contraception mandate treated religious freedom as a sort of interior right to pray as one wished within a certain private space without associating or emerging into action; freedom of religion was restricted to freedom to worship. At our own moment, the Respect for Marriage Act poses a threat to free association and common action.
As Ryszard Legutko has noted, the current distortions of liberalism extend beyond the market and state. Such individualism wants to consume everything—and wants everything to comply, “including ethics and mores, family, churches, schools, universities, community organizations, culture, and even human sentiments and aspirations,” and they all need to be “transformed because they are fossils of past injustices.” In other words, a distorted liberalism is addicted to its vision of freedom, and it seeks to bulldoze the associations in which human beings become fully human through networks of obligation and affection.
We’ve insisted, correctly, on the rights of individuals. Now, however, it is increasingly time to remember individuals become full persons in association, and free associations increasingly need defending against the vicious who seek to undermine and undo them. A society of individuals adrift and alone is easy pickings, but it leaves us sclerotic and isolated in our vice. So we better all hang together or we’ll hang separately.