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.