When Rights Are Wrong

There are few topics that are of greater importance than “rights.” At the same time, the topic of rights has been egregiously misunderstood and fraudulently represented. What are rights? Are they the exclusive domain of human beings? What is the basis of a right? How can rights be protected? Can there be rights without duties? These are certainly important questions, though their answers are often confusing and contradictory.

That the subject of rights is important is widely upheld. Unfortunately, there is an unbridgeable chasm between their recognized importance and how they should be applied. Some years ago, the well-known anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote a piece for Redbook entitled, “The Many Rights to Life.” The redoubtable Ms. Mead generously extended the notion of rights to all animals and plants by declaring that “Clean air and safe water have become rights for all living things.” In her sweeping largesse, she bestows rights upon even those who have passed on. The deceased, she writes, have both the right to be mourned after death as well as the right “to vanish into the unremembered past.” She includes, in her bountiful list, the “right to a chosen sexual identity.”

Her munificence, however, does have limitations. She strongly opposes “the right of the conceived but unborn to emerge alive from the womb.” Thus, she strongly disagrees with the “absolutism” of the Right to Life Movement and approves amniocentesis followed by abortion so that couples may avoid “the tragedy of having predestined a living being to defective survival.” Many of her so-called rights are merely benefits, while she denies that a living human being in the womb has a right that is commensurate to the right a fish has to swim in “safe water.”

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In the 1992 Casey decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy proclaimed that “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Such a “right” has never been contested and stands as an embarrassment to the Supreme Court. William Bennett derided it as an “open-ended validation of subjectivism” that paves the way for drug abuse, assisted suicide, prostitution, and “virtually everything else.” George Will found it “gaseously” written, while Michael Uhlman labeled it a “thing of almost infinite plasticity.” Robert Bork saw it as “fog-filled, vapid rhetoric intended to put the reader’s mind to sleep.” First Things referred to it as the “notorious mystery passage.” Here, as with Margaret Mead, rights are passed as if they are nothing more than monopoly money, while the real coin of the realm is withheld.

The zenith of making wrongs right and rights wrong, however, may have been reached in a recent book co-authored by William F. Schulz and Sushma Raman entitled, The Coming Good Society: Why New Realities Demand New Rights (2020, Harvard University Press). It purports to be ultra-modern, doing away with so much debris that has been inherited from the past. In order to make a clean sweep of things, the authors dismiss both the natural law and any authority, including the Bible, which has a religious origin. Their task is important but daunting. It is reminiscent of a student essayist who claimed that the Hebrew slaves “made unleavened bread, which is bread made without any ingredients.”

Briefly, the traditional notion of the natural law, explicated by St. Thomas Aquinas and refined by Catholic philosophers such as Jacques Maritain, Germain Grisez, John Finnis, and others, is based on the universal human inclination to preserve one’s life, to know God, the truth, and the good, and to marry and raise children. The natural law is known through reason and, when properly honored, fulfills the most basic of all universal human tendencies. In other words, the natural law serves as the basis for morality and human rights. Human beings, then, should make choices that are congruent with their nature and destiny. Its’ most eloquent expression in American history was framed by Thomas Jefferson and appears as the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

What Schulz and Raman regard as “realities” are really occurrences or activities. A mere occurrence cannot serve as the basis of a right. Nonetheless, they confer rights on activities such as abortion, same-sex marriage, commercial surrogacy, and euthanasia while asserting that blocking the onset of puberty in gender-dysphoric children promotes human dignity. In the “good society” there will be the right to die, the right to have sex, the right to sell your body for sex, and everything else in the liberal agenda. Their liberalism seems unlimited. They endorse, as a right, the use of biotechnologies in which more than two people have a biological connection to children who are produced in laboratories. Having dismissed the natural law, it is difficult to understand how the authors could have enough respect for nature to associate technological manipulations with rights.

How, then, do Schulz and Raman justify the rights they claim to be rights? “These are rights,” they argue, “because the international community has recognized them to be integral to the common good, to a good society. Deny them if you like, but if you do, you will be flying in the face of a significant worldwide consensus.” Are the authors living in a dream world? It is simply an undeniable fact that there does not exist an international consensus on the moral issues they present. They eviscerate the real basis of human rights in the natural law and then construct a series of pseudo rights out of thin air. What they are really doing is raising wrongs to the level of rights while dismissing certain rights as wrongs. Their “good society” seems more monstrous than the dystopia that George Orwell painted in his novel 1984. According to one reviewer, their book is “an insipid mess.”

The liberal project attempts to do two things: to justify abortion and to rationalize, on the basis of “rights,” a series of wrongs that are going on in society. This is hardly a recipe for a “good society.” Apparently, Harvard University Press has seen fit to publish The Coming Good Society not because it is convincing, but only because its’ progressive viewpoint happens to be trendy. 

  • Donald DeMarco

    Donald DeMarco is professor emeritus of Saint Jerome’s University and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary. He is a regular columnist for the Saint Austin Review and the author, most recently, of Reflections on the Covid-19 Pandemic: A Search for Understanding.

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