In Which We have no Rights (But We do have Duties)

In our post-enlightenment world, we can address no topic without coming to the subject of someone or something’s “rights”. All political and social questions come down to this. Women’s rights, Animal rights, consumer rights, the right to bear arms, the rights of a mother, the rights of a baby, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (whatever that is). We define ourselves and delineate the boundaries of our actions and the actions of others in terms of what is owed to us and what may not be done to us.

But this is a bass-ackwards way to look at the world. Defining a worldview in terms of “rights” truncates our lives. It is an anemic and miserly way to approach relationships. Rights look at the minimum required and the maximum owed, and so require an infinitely quantifiable description of whatever aspect of life is being addressed. This is not just inadvisable, or even sinfully selfish: In the end it is nonsense.

Instead of grasping at our “rights”, we should rather define our lives and determine our agenda in terms of “duties“. Duties create positive and outward-looking relationships, which tend to be qualitatively measured.

Practically, this difference of outlook would make an enormous difference in our approach to every issue that confronts us:

How ought we to treat animals?
It is not a question of our rights vs. the rights of other creatures. What are our duties toward our fellow creatures? What are our responsibilities? The dominion mandate is not about what we are allowed to take, but rather how we are required to give, to sacrifice, to nurture and care for the Lord’s other creatures.

How ought we to care for the environment?
Again, it is not a question of what we are allowed to take. As Christians, we understand that it is man’s duty to nurture and care for the world that we have been given. We are to be about redeeming the world: A good king is a king who sacrifices for his subjects. What exactly that looks like down on the ground is another question, but framing the debate in terms of duties changes everything, for conservatives and liberals alike.

How ought we to look at the issue of abortion?
For conservatives, this may seem like a simple question (Murder is wrong. Duh.). But that does not answer the ‘women’s rights’ advocate’s very legitimate objections about considering the mother. What would happen if this debate were no longer about who’s rights are being violated, but about duties and obligations? For that matter, custody, alimony, and child-support hearings might look a little different in that context as well.

How ought we to look at economics?
Hard-core conservatives talk about unfettered capitalism like it is some kind of god (which to many, it is). Big box stores and all of the things that get liberal panties in a twist (and I suspect that this is the principle appeal of such things) is just the natural function of the market. Small business owners get edged out, communities fractured, paradise duly paved, but that’s the way it goes, and I have the right to a free-market. Liberals conversely appeal to the rights of the small business man, the rights of the poor, and some generic socialism-lite principles. I’ll talk more about capitalism, charity, and Christianity soon and in as much depth as my education allows, but it will take us a long way in this discussion if we look at it not in terms of what is owed to us, or what has been earned, but rather what our duties are to others. This changes the whole debate, from both sides.

We have no rights. The greatest commandment is to Love God. And the second is like it, Love your neighbor as yourself. These are duties, obligations. Every discussion of every issue should be framed in terms of how we can fulfill our duties.

10 comments on “In Which We have no Rights (But We do have Duties)

  1. Ken says:

    The discussion of “rights” must also include those with mental illnesses. The Virginia Tech murders comes blatantly to mind. Enough about that. Imagine a retirement home. Your Parent or Grandparent is living there. The facility admits a person with a known history of violent behavior who is at first taking medication that helps. This person, like most schizophrenics stops taking the meds. This persons behavior starts to escalate. Nothing the facility does helps. The behavior becomes more and more violent. It comes to the point that 911 is called. But when they get there, the person refuses help. And though this person is obviously on the brink, they refuse to do anything, because it is the law. Our society must look long and hard at the position we hold on a persons rights at this point. Instead of waiting for someone to be hurt or killed, we should be able to get this person help, or force them to do so.

  2. Neva says:

    This is a very interesting post and a lot to ponder.

    I think in discussing duties vs. rights though it is important to keep in mind that kindness to others is not always what we think it is. In some cases we have a duty not to tend, but to leave someone/something be. Just as a parent might have many hopes and dreams for his/her child, he/she hopefully realizes that to caretake with love also means letting the child make decisions and develop his/her own way. Wow, run on sentence.

    I guess I also see that in terms of animal rights when it comes to my difficulties with Peta. I think Peta sees their duties toward animals as intrinsically connected to control. Hence they euthanize feral cats and other healthy animals because if they don’t kill them they can’t control what happens to them next. But we can caretake animals, live with the tragic knowledge that every single one might not have the happiest story ultimately, but still try to give them that chance.

    I absolutely agree that we have duties to the earth, and sadly many are ignoring them right now.

  3. neva,

    in broad theoretical strokes we agree. caring for someone or something does not mean constantly controlling and manipulating the situation, nor is it just stepping out of the way and que sera sera: one, the other, or both (in varying amounts) are needed depending on the context. i have a feeling that we’ll have a little more to talk about in terms of practical applications, mostly because of other presuppositions that i have a suspicion we do not share (for instance, something being “natural” is not to me ipso facto a quality in its favor. more on that in the economics post i’m cooking up. can’t stay confined to one subject very long. i blame my liberal arts education.). again, thanks for chiming in.


  4. ken,

    no, wait…i want to hear where you were going with the va tech thing. sounded like you were about to say something interesting, and i never watch tv so i’m not burned out on the subject. pretty please?

    p.s. – on a related note, anybody know what the eightch a ‘hokie’ is?

  5. Abra says:

    lotsa duties

  6. Neva says:


    Although when I went to JMU and my best friend was at Tech, everyone thought the hokie was a neutered male turkey. Odd, but true.

    For me also, natural is not always superior. I take it case by case.

  7. Nathan says:


    Have you read or seen, ‘‘One Flew the Over the Cuckoo‘s Nest‘‘?

  8. neva,

    thanks for the tip on hokie.
    and sorry to make you repeat yourself on the ‘natural’ thing: i didn’t get your earlier comment until i checked my spam file. akismet must be run by egg farmers.

  9. ken,
    another thought: having been an employee in long-term care, the scenario you have outlined is not really realistic in the average for-profit care facility.
    violent patients are quickly bounced to psychiatric care facilities that have a liscense to administer physical or chemical restraints as necessary: a facility that is not set up to deal with that particular type of patient cannot afford and will not risk the legal danger.
    if such a scenario were to take place, i think we can safely say that the facility administrator wasn’t doing their duty toward any of their patients, violent or not.
    however, as per nathan’s question, it is important to remember that a violent person has the imago dei as much as anyone else, and especially in a long term care facility who’s job is to deal with such things, caretakers have a duty to care for such people. difficulty and danger do not negate duty.
    and in my experience, many people who ‘act out’ in nursing homes do so more often because of frustration and confusion due to inadequate care which exacerbates their mental condition.
    the caretaker’s duty toward the other patients under their care is certainly not negated by their duty to a ‘problem patient’. but that cuts both ways.
    and if a person is violent enough to warrant a 911 call, i’m pretty sure they don’t get the option of refusing care. not sure what ‘law’ you are talking about.

  10. […] Rights v. Duties I Rights v. Duties II Apocalypse and Veganism I Apocalypse and Veganism II Veganism and the Fulfilling Lives of Chickens […]

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