Social Contract and Morality

Friday, June 11, AD 2010

Kyle Cupp has a brief post describing the dehumanizing moral effects of seeing human dignity and rights as springing entirely from a social contract (implied or explicit):

This reduction occurs when we understand and act upon our moral obligations to one another only within the framework of a social contract–when we limit our obligations to those who have entered into such contracts and consider ourselves obligated only to those who share our citizenship, have signed a treaty we have signed, or participate with us in some other contractual arrangement. I make this reduction when I don’t care about torturing terrorists because they’re not signers of the Geneva Conventions, when I wish to alienate the immigrant who enters my country against my country’s laws, when I ignore my obligations to those not yet born because the laws of the land do not recognize their personhood, or when I insist that others shouldn’t be given Constitutional rights when the rights I wish to withhold from them are basic human rights.

I think that he’s right as far as he goes, but I don’t think that his point that basic human rights and duties are inherent to humanity (rather than assumed via some sort of contract/relationship) is actually the point usually at dispute in our society. Rather, what seems often to be disputed is what the extent of basic human rights are — and which “rights” are merely agreed civic rights which we grant explicitly via the social contract.

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15 Responses to Social Contract and Morality

  • Of course what are called “human rights” today are almost entirely the product of Western societies since the Sixteenth Century, much of it from Great Britain and America in origin. Much of what we call “human rights” today would have been denounced as pernicious and/or dangerous throughout most of human history by most cultures. To say that “human rights” arise simply due to inherent moral obligations that exist between people, we are confronted with the difficulty that most cultures for most of human history would vigorously disagree.

  • Thank you for the thoughtful response, Darwin. I’m pretty sure that I agree with the points you make, particularly in your last paragraph. To clarify my post, let me say that when the reduction is made, it isn’t usually (if ever) made flat out in a way that covers a person’s entire morality; it’s rather applied here and there inconsistently.

  • Donald,

    You raise a good point about the history of rights language. It is a recent invention. I tend to call rights a useful fiction, myself.

  • I do agree with what Kyle said. But, from other discussions I know that I don’t agree with how Kyle applies his generic or all inclusive definition of basic human rights to all persons of all types of backgrounds, since his definition doesn’t seem to take into consideration ( or very little consideration) certain circumstances and/or the consequences that one must face when committing a crime or an act of war. This is applicable with regards to both illegal immigrants and terrorists.

    While I do believe that enhanced interrogation techniques are justified in very extreme, life saving circumstances, I do think that the Bush administration allowed the use of them too frequently. But, then again, one needs to realize the atmosphere after 9/11, and no person wanted anything like this to ever happen again. I don’t support the three items on your list. They are in violation of basic human rights. With regards to immigration, I am all for legal immigration but am against illegal immigration. One would think that having secure borders would be a good thing, especially for our safety, but certain people deride people who advocate for secure borders and call us other vile names just because we want immigrants to follow our laws and immigrate here via the proper channels.

  • My only issue is that I don’t ever recall Morning’s Minion, whom Kyle is supposedly defending with his post, demonstrating an accurate understanding of classical social contract theory, nor providing and concrete examples of this bad sort of “contract thinking” in our society.

    There is nothing wrong with the social contract. It defines clearly the parameters of government. The alternative is arbitrary authority. We as Catholics can be proud that the resistance to absolute, arbitrary authority probably began in the Salamanca school.

  • Yes, clearly those who support enhanced interrogation do so on the basis that:

    (a.) It is not a violation of basic human rights;

    (b.) Strictures against using such techniques in the civilian criminal and civil code apply only in the civilian criminal and civil code, because they arise from the social contract;

    (c.) Strictures against using such techniques against prisoners of war also arise, not from a fundamental right, but from a contractual obligation; namely, treaty obligations regarding lawful combatants. These do not apply to persons whose status is “unlawful combatant.”

    Of course, (b.) and (c.) depend on first establishing (a.). If in fact everyone does have a basic human right, intrinsic to their dignity as a human person, not to be waterboarded, why then the presence or absence of a contract doesn’t matter a whit. Only if (a.) is true, does anyone even bother with (b.) and (c.).

    So, what about (a.)?

    To repeat, (a.) asserts that enhanced interrogation is not a violation of the basic human rights intrinsic to the dignity of human persons.

    Now it sounds absurd on the face of it to say this. Obviously we know we shouldn’t go grabbing random persons and waterboarding them, so, in obedience to this moral intuition, we conclude that it must be “a violation of their basic human rights” to do so, right? And if it’s a violation of the basic human rights of any random person, it must likewise be a violation of the basic human rights of a war criminal like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, right?

    Well, not so fast. One mustn’t go around waterboarding random persons. One mustn’t go around locking up random persons, either. Does it follow that locking up Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is a violation of his basic human rights?

    Why, no. It would only be a violation if he were innocent of wrongdoing. As he is a particularly nasty terrorist and about as far from innocent as it is possible to be, it’s perfectly okay to violate his basic human right of liberty, which is intrinsic to his dignity as a human being, by locking him up.

    Actually, I said that incorrectly. It’s not okay to violate his basic human right…but locking him up is no violation, because getting locked up is a freely-chosen consequence on his part. He chose, even asked, to be treated that way just by doing what he did. If he wasn’t willing to do the time, he shouldn’t have done the war-crime.

    But that raises a problem. Why can we not likewise argue that, while of course persons in general have a right to not be waterboarded, KSM voluntarily renounced that right by choosing to orchestrate terror plots to kill thousands of innocent people. Why can we not argue that, by doing this, he “chose, even asked,” to be waterboarded?

    Is there some qualitative or categorical difference between the right to freedom from imprisonment and the right to freedom from waterboarding, such that the former right can be voluntarily renounced by evil deeds, but the latter cannot?

    So the question is this:

    Given that people voluntarily renounce certain of their rights (at minimum, their liberty and/or property) when they commit heinous crimes by committing those crimes, it is reasonable, and not a violation of their rights, to forcibly deprive them of the benefits of the rights they have renounced.

    Yet, even before we read Church teachings on the matter, we recognize that the Moral Law forbids us to treat these persons as if they had, by committing whatever evil deed, renounced all of the rights intrinsic to the human dignity. We may lock them up; so, crimes are clearly capable of constituting a rejection of one’s right to liberty. We may not hang them from a mechanized hook and lower them an inch at a time, screaming, into an industrial shredding machine; so, crimes are clearly incapable of constituting a rejection of one’s right to not be shredded alive.

    How then, can one distinguish between the two categories of rights? Which ones may be renounced by crimes of sufficient magnitude, and which may not, no matter how horrific the crime?

    The Right to Not Be Waterboarded seems, according to Church teaching and most thinking Catholic opinion, to fall in the category of rights which are never, ever renounced. Even if one were, say, to personally rape and slowly murder fifty thousand innocent children while enjoying the whole process, one would have, by doing so, renounced one’s rights to both life and liberty, but not one’s right to avoid waterboarding.

    Why so?

    I am perfectly content agreeing that there is a line to be drawn; I am perfectly content saying that that is where the line is drawn; but I am confused about whether it was drawn there arbitrarily and could have been placed elsewhere, or if it was drawn there according to some unalterable moral principle which, when understood, allows us to see that the line could only ever be drawn in that way.

    Does anyone want to propose a principle which explains the positioning of the line? Or is it arbitrary, after all?

  • Joe,

    I agree that there is nothing wrong with the social contract per se. My concern is with the social contract used as a metaphorical framework for moral thought and action. I’m critical of thinking of moral obligations too much in terms of a social contract, moral thought that relies too heavily on the metaphor, that at times fails to account for obligations that exist beyond its boundaries. When someone denies another a basic human right because that other is not a “signer” of the social contract, he has treated a personal moral obligation as if it were an obligation under a social contract.

  • And as others have pointed out, we have to distinguish between civil and “basic human rights.” Who decides what a basic human right is?

    For instance, I believe an illegal immigrant has a basic human right to have their immediate needs met – if they are hungry, feed them, if they are naked, clothe them, if they are sick, care for them, contract or no contract. That is the basic Christian obligation.

    But when it comes to say, access to social services such as medical care beyond the emergency level, or education, or food stamps, etc. – then the public authorities, whose charge is to maintain the common good, have every right to regulate and restrict who has access to these services on the basis of what is fiscally and socially sustainable.

    This used to be understood in Catholic social thought. Now I’m not so sure it is. Now “common good” has come to mean services and spending without limit, in the name of satisfying “basic human rights.” That is to say, more and more things are falling under the umbrella of “basic human rights”, all of which the state is obliged to tax and pay for.

    But unsustainable policies cannot benefit the common good. If society collapses under the weight of entitlements, benefits, and a greatly expanded understanding of “basic human rights”, then I would say a much greater moral harm is done a great many more people. Some may call that “consequentialism”, but I don’t think it is an intrinsic evil for states to set boundaries and limits in order to ensure basic functionality.

  • Who decides what a basic human right is?

    Spoken like a good anti-Christian nihilist!

  • I wasn’t going to allow or respond to this childish nonsense, but for the sake of clarity I will indulge:

    My intention was not to say that it is impossible to decide what a basic human right is, but that in politics, there are many competing claims that demand recognition.

    I am neither anti-Christian nor a “nihilist” (another one of the pet words). I will rephrase the question: who decides which claims to basic human rights are endorsed by the state? Why is it that many more things are considered “basic human rights” than were 100 years ago? I don’t say that there are no basic human rights, but that in the current political climate, the concept continues to expand without limit, without regard for realistic limitations, and in doing so, putting ALL human rights in jeopardy.

  • Joe, don’t let Karlson get under your skin. That’s just how he reacts when he can’t control the discussion and drop the comments that he doesn’t see as advancing his pet agenda. He becomes unhinged and resorts to desperate ad hominems. It’s his tell – like when someone who doesn’t have any good cards tries to bluff his way through a poker hand but doesn’t realize that when he does his unconscious “rub-his-nose-with-his-index-finger-and smile” routine he is telegraphing the fact that he’s got nothing to every skilled player at the table. Pity him.

  • Yeah, sorry, Joe. I didn’t see Henry’s comment while it was still sitting in moderation, or I probably would have just deleted it as the non-comment it is.

    Pity is probably the right move here.

  • Eh. Maybe I should have let you, but it’s good to clear the air. People should see what we’re dealing with too.

  • My understanding, with regard to whether a terrorist or criminal forfeits the right not to be tortured, lies in the distinction between torture and other types of violence. War is inherently violent, and if it is unjust it is a travesty, but if it is just it is permitted (notice I don’t say noble, however, though personal acts of courage that are genuinely noble certainly occur even in unjust wars). Torture is not merely violence, but violence ordered toward a particular end: getting information out of the subject. So, where punishment or defense merits “violation” of the right an aggressor forfeits, the same may not be true of merely getting information from them by force that damages the body or the mind. (That’s my definition of torture in concrete terms, also.) I would suggest that while punishment is oriented directly toward dealing with the action it punishes and defense likewise, torture is on the other hand oriented directly toward information and therefore not, in the moral order, an immediate necessity and justified response to forfeiture of rights (which is a very limited forfeiture even where it does occur, by the way; it’s almost as if the criminal forces his rights out of the picture, although I do not mean by that a necessity argument which is a nicer way of saying a utilitarian argument). I would further argue that we have historically viewed torture as wrong regardless of any contract — things such as the Geneva Convention were put together largely after and in response to the great war crimes of the twentieth century that we prosecuted anyway (waterboarding by the Axis forces in WW2, for example). Finally, I would note that the Church appears (I say appears because the Catechism has been unclear in the past, inasmuch as stating as if it were required what is still technically only pious opinion is technically unclear) to teach that torture, that violence ordered toward extraction of information rather than either punishment or direct defense, is intrinsically evil.

    Thus, while I’m not totally closed to being corrected if I’m mistaken as to any of those moral standpoints, those are the well developed points that would need to be addressed to even begin suggesting torture is permissible on those who forfeit the bulk of their rights.

    Also, if one does argue that torture is permissible on war criminals because they’ve forfeited rights, one has to demonstrate the forfeiture of rights before one can act on it — and in terms of law, that generally means convict the war criminal first and interrogate after — which entirely robs the “necessity” argument of any urgency factor, the way it takes time to convict. One could argue also that an active combatant proves his status by that action, as these are whom one may shoot in a war without any trial or other formal process; however, one may not generally shoot an enemy who is captured and deprived of ability to combat because you’ve removed them from the very situation of immediate combat that both allows and necessitates said immediate judgement, so it’d be questionable whether such a parallel would even make torture of captured foes legitimate or rather prove it illegitimate.

  • I should also note regarding my definition of torture that damage need not be permanent. Also, I’m not sure I shouldn’t include direct infliction of pain in there, but one could argue pain as passing mental damage (since it impairs one’s immediate ability to think clearly)… but it’s the direct infliction, not the result of damage, that makes the difference — not that the classical notion of the direct object of an act means anything to the vast majority even of Catholics today, who would probably fail to realize that that _is_ drawing the line between mere discomfort (which is different from pain in kind, not just degree) or poor living conditions or anything like that and actual inflicting of pain. Let’s see, anything else… Risk. I’d probably count anything that risks such things just as sure as anything that obviously does it, simply because morality doesn’t play loose with possibilities and doubts (even where it acknowledges the _subjective_ effects of doubt, which, mind, can worsen the moral content if one is guilty of allowing the doubt to stay and especially to stay in a thing one knows one will act in).

    There’s a lot of temptation these days to call definitions unclear because we can equivocate around them, as if a clear definition would be immune to equivocation — and yet actually, that’s in the definition of equivocation: when something’s not clear in the first place, there isn’t a good meaning #1 for which to misconstrue with meaning #2, now is there? So anyway… yeah, I felt the need to try to add further qualification. Not sure I succeeded.

    And of course, one can also say all this is my “armchair theologian” pontification, but then, I don’t have to be stolen from to tell you we should criminalize theft either.

33 Responses to Should Catholics Own Guns?

  • I do. I don’t see anything in the catechism that says I’m obliged to passively let a home invaded kill me in my own bedroom.

  • Indeed. The passages I quoted from the catechism affirmed that we have a moral duty to protect ourselves, out of the love of self derived from our existence as a gift from God. I personally believe that gun ownership should remain legal and in some places be more accessible.

    On the other hand, you have to consider the likelihood of a trespasser attempting to kill you in your home. What actually is the risk, and what is the risk of having a gun in the house? This is why it is a question of prudence. For me, since I’m not a hunter and have no training, owning a gun would pose a greater risk than an intruder, so until I get the training, a gun is definitely not for me. For my wife, who is trained and has been around guns her entire life, a gun poses much less risk than an intruder, and so a gun is definitely an option for her. How does that mesh between the two of us? Right now, her guns are in storage well away from home. Perhaps in the future that might change.

  • In addition to training/experience, there is also a moral duty to know how “strong” one’s firearm is in relation to the proximity of your neighbors. For example, using a hunting rifle (with a high muzzle velocity) to defend yourself very well poses risks to your neighbors if you miss, and perhaps even if you don’t. The flip side of 2263-65 is that you can’t risk your neighbor’s lives, either.

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  • I’ve never liked guns, and haven’t shot one since my Army days three decades ago, but I strongly support the right of people to own guns for hunting and self-defense. I agree with this line from my late father’s favorite western, Shane: : “A gun is a tool, Marian; no better or no worse than any other tool: an axe, a shovel or anything. A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it. Remember that.”

  • Of course, what I didn’t argue in this post is how effective guns are at what they’re purported to do. I’ll leave that to someone else. But, to play devil’s advocate, speaking of a gun as only a tool may mask part of the issue. Does handing a person a tool with which it is easy to kill someone–especially since guns are designed for killing, be it animal or human–make it more likely that a person will kill? Under what circumstances is merely owning a gun bringing a person into the near occasion of sin? I think those are the questions that Catholic opponents of gun ownership would ask. (I don’t think the accidental death ranks near as high, since by that mark we’d have to ban cars before banning guns…)

  • Yes, Catholics should own guns if they see the need. Good luck trying to get the Vatican security details to disarm 😉

  • “Does handing a person a tool with which it is easy to kill someone–especially since guns are designed for killing, be it animal or human–make it more likely that a person will kill?”

    Depends entirely upon the persons wielding the weapons Ryan. I’ve lived my life almost entirely in rural Illinois. Most of my neighbors have guns of all sorts, pistols, shotguns, rifles,etc. I have never been threatened with a weapon, even though for the past 26 years I have brought legal actions, on behalf of clients, against thousands of people who live in the surrounding area. Some people can be trusted with firearms, just as they can be trusted with knives, axes, etc, and other tools, while other people, including some of my criminal clients, could not be trusted with a paper clip.

  • “Does handing a person a tool with which it is easy to kill someone–especially since guns are designed for killing, be it animal or human–make it more likely that a person will kill?”

    As Donald said, it depends a lot on the person, but for someone who’s got a basic level of moral responsibility and has received at least 20 minutes in training on basic gun safety and respect for what they can do, my experience is that generally the knowledge of what a gun can do as a tool is sobering rather than a motive towards irresponsible behavior.

    Robert Heinlein (hardly an exemplar of Catholic thinking, I know) said, “A well armed society is a polite society.”

    And while that could be taken to refer to the reserve of mutual fear, my experience is more that people who know they bear the responsibility of handling highly lethal weapons remember to be more polite, more careful, and more helpful for it. I’ve been treated rudely in church far more often than I have at the gun range.

    This, I think, is where familiarity with guns is very, very important from a safety perspective. The person you want to fear is not the “gun nut” with the AK collection who’s down at the range every other weekend, but the person who went and bought a gun that he or she has never shot — or perhaps only shot once. That’s the person who’s likely to be quick to reach for it “like in the movies”.

  • I think, for the most part, agreeable that people have a right to self-defense and the right to defend their families, and therefore, a right to gun ownership. However, I am most curious as to why many second amendment advocates I’ve encountered oppose very reasonable gun control laws.

    24 to 48 hour waiting periods. I’ve encountered opposition to this idea and I’ve been told (I wouldn’t be surprised) that some politicians actually vote against such laws. Common sense would suggest that if a person cannot wait two measely days to get a gun, perhaps it would be prudent to think twice about giving it to them.

    I read in a book about Catholic Social Teaching (I haven’t checked the statistics that were footnoted) that some 40% of gun sales are done privately and background checks are not done. I’ve further encountered opposition to changing this reality on the basis of a slippery slope argument.

    Moreover, laws restricting the number of guns bought in day have found opposition. Does one really need to buy more than twenty guns at a time? I can’t recall the precise number, but I do not remember it being unreasonable.

    I’m just not certain why sensible gun control laws are opposed when the right to own guns is respected while seeking to minimally regulate the flow of guns.

    I am not a fan of guns. There’s a debate in the Texas state government to unrestrict concealed carry laws to enable teachers and students to carry concealed weapons on their campuses and even in classrooms. I don’t think words could even describe my opposition to this idea.


  • There’s a debate in the Texas state government to unrestrict concealed carry laws to enable teachers and students to carry concealed weapons on their campuses and even in classrooms. I don’t think words could even describe my opposition to this idea. Thoughts?

    Well, ever since Va. Tech….

  • I simply see no need for a Catholic to own a gun, an instrument for killing.

  • The solution to the problem of armed violence in schools is to enable everyone to be armed as to even the playing field?

  • Hey Mark,

    That is what Carl Rowan thought too.

  • Just as a follow-up, I do not own a firearm, and I tend to be ambivalent about the 2nd Amendment. I have mixed feelings about gun control, but as a Va. Tech alum the incident was a particularly jarring reminder that only those who break the law have guns in gun-free zones.

  • I don’t think a single incidence speaks enough volume to write off other ills that may come of such a policy that we may currently be blind to. I think emotional reaction to such incidences potentially can lead to legislation that doesn’t get fully evaluated.

  • However, I am most curious as to why many second amendment advocates I’ve encountered oppose very reasonable gun control laws.

    Probably a couple of reasons for this.

    On the unreasonable level, gun owners often start to feel fairly persecuted by the gun control lobby, and so their emotional reaction is simply to oppose everything that the gun control lobby advocates, regardless of whether it seems like a good idea.

    On the reasonable level, oftentimes laws which seem to make a lot of sense to gun control advocates do not make much sense to people from the perspective of law abiding gun owners. For example, as you point out a lot of gun sales are private person-to-person sales which currently require no paperwork to be filed in most states. I once made a private gun sale myself. I knew that a buddy of mine had been wanting a Swiss K31 bolt action rifle for some time, and I had a chance to buy one for under $200. It’s a moderately hard to find rifle (a straight pull bolt action rifle that the Swiss army used until the 50s and which the papal Swiss Guard used until fairly recently) and it’s not exactly the crowd killer — the design has not changed since 1931. So after checking with him on the cell phone, I bought it for him, and then sold it to him the next time I was down where he lived.

    Now in states that apply all the same rules to private party sales that are applied to dealer sales, I would have had to drive down to his town, take it to a gun dealer, give it to the gun dealer, who would then run a background check and hold on to it for a waiting period before letting him have it. (And generally charge a $50 to $75 fee in the process for his trouble.) Since these sales are usually between relatives or friends, that seems like a royal pain and rather unfair.

    The solution to the problem of armed violence in schools is to enable everyone to be armed as to even the playing field?

    To be fair, though, that’s not the suggestion. In all states that I’m aware of the licensing process to get a concealed carry permit is intensive enough that it’s very clear by the time you get one that you
    a) have no criminal record
    b) know how to use a gun well
    c) understand thoroughly the (very severe) legal consequences to using a gun improperly

    The change in law that they’re looking at would simply allow people who’ve already gone through that process to continue to carry (if they want) on the premises of “gun free” institutions like universities. I don’t have a strong opinion either way, personally, as you’re going to find very, very few licensed carriers among the student and faculty demographics. But to the extent that we already have a legal process for determining who’s allowed to carry, I don’t have a problem with them carrying in schools, hospitals, etc.

    I look a quick look around for data, and at least in Florida only 0.01% (out of 1.4 million) of those licensed to carry later commit crimes involving guns — so it doesn’t sound like much of a risk to me.

  • Darwin,

    On the first note, I don’t think inconvenience as reason to oppose those laws. I’m just as sure that criminals obtain guns from private gun sales and that the small inconvenience one might pay in the hobby of collecting guns, if it could potentially save one life is worth every bit of it.

    On the second matter, I see your point, but Florida’s demographics are not the same as, say, Los Angeles, Houston, or Chicago. Statistics of Florida don’t immediately apply to the rest of the country.

    And on the same level, I think numbers of student/faculty gun carriers will change depending on the demograpics and the state. I think much more would have to go into analyzing such a policy.

  • On the first note, I don’t think inconvenience as reason to oppose those laws. I’m just as sure that criminals obtain guns from private gun sales and that the small inconvenience one might pay in the hobby of collecting guns, if it could potentially save one life is worth every bit of it.

    I see your point, though at the same time — if Criminal A has a gun he wants to sell to Criminal B, and the state in question requires that private party sales be made through a dealer, I strongly doubt that the criminals in question would feel they needed to go over to the dealer and subject themselves to a background check and waiting period. I’d have to look the statistics up, but according to nationwide statistics slightly over half the guns used in all crimes are already obtained illegally.

    So I think often gun owners (myself included) feel like these laws simply make us jump through useless hoops, while doing very little to actually keep guns out of the hands of criminals. That said, if a law really would be successful in keeping guns out of criminals hands, I personally think it’s worth some inconvenience to achieve that.

    On the second matter, I see your point, but Florida’s demographics are not the same as, say, Los Angeles, Houston, or Chicago. Statistics of Florida don’t immediately apply to the rest of the country.

    Agreed, though due especially to the drug trade Florida has plenty of crime in some areas. Still, though I’d have to hunt for more data, I think you’ll find that people with concealed carry permits are absolutely the safest people you could possibly deal with in regards to guns. (Also, it’s hard to compare as Chicago, DC, New York, and Los Angeles all have incredibly restrictive gun laws compared to most other parts of the country. The concealed carry approach has not been tried in any of those places.)

    Gun training, background check, and knowledge of the world of trouble you’d be in for mis-using the gun ought to be roughly the best combination of factors for reducing people’s likelihood of committing crimes.

  • “I don’t think a single incidence speaks enough volume to write off other ills that may come of such a policy that we may currently be blind to. I think emotional reaction to such incidences potentially can lead to legislation that doesn’t get fully evaluated.”

    Well, sure, but emotional reactions work both ways. If we already have concealed carry permits under state law which allow people to carry everywhere else in the state, why should colleges and universities be different? If you think there are ‘other ills’ that we are blind to here, shouldn’t we see those ills everywhere else in the state?

    If you are against concealed carry laws, then maybe the question is irrelevant, but otherwise I do not see why a university campus is significantly different than a block away from a university campus. If anything, university students and faculties are less likely to be criminally dangerous. To me the suspension of an otherwise valid concealed carry permit on university grounds seems more emotional (no guns in our pristine intellectual utopia!) than rational, but I would be willing to revise that view if there is empirical support for the ban.

  • Wow, I can’t believe this thread has been up for nearly a whole day, and Michael Iafrate hasn’t posted a kneejerk leftist response. (For someone who seems to think the most important thing in the world is to question the assumptions and beliefs that come naturally to you, he never shows the slightest openmindedness about questioning his own leftist beliefs. Anyone who disagrees with him is the enemy.)

  • Happy Advent, S.B.

  • I don’t think a single incidence speaks enough volume to write off other ills that may come of such a policy that we may currently be blind to. I think emotional reaction to such incidences potentially can lead to legislation that doesn’t get fully evaluated.

    The question isn’t necessarily are we reacting to a single incident (though I agree that many, many, many reams of paper with worthless blots of ink have been forced through legislatures everywhere in response to single incidents), but whether the single incident is indicative of a larger trend. Part of the problem with trying to learn if arming the campus deters shootings is that there isn’t much evidence one way or another. But from the one incident that we have, we can speculate that either a) having guns nearby did nothing to deter the shooter, as he still shot and killed several people or b) having guns nearby allowed several students to halt the shooting before it became a massacre.

    Frankly, I’m of the opinion that allowing guns on campus and keeping legal in all places the right to carry a conceal weapon are suitable deterrents for crime. Attempting a crime becomes like playing Russian roulette. Will there be a bullet in the chamber, or won’t there? Granted, some will take the risk anyway, just as some will still obtain guns illegally and commit crimes that way. At this point, I feel it becomes a number game determining which methods decrease deaths the most.

    The problem, of course, is that no gun law is going to solve all the problems. Fallen human nature, and all that. I know from personal experience that it is very, very frustrating to have to deal with inconvenient legalities, and it isn’t because they’re inconvenient. Rather, it is like being treated like a criminal when I haven’t committed any crime, while the legal nonsense does nothing to prevent real criminals from doing what they will, anyway. That sense of being judged before any crime has been committed has, I think, more implications than simply us crying out in frustration about punishing those who obey the law, while doing nothing to stop those who break the law.

    However, I don’t feel that such limitations as: licensing, background checks, waiting periods, and bringing a gun by at least the county office after a private sale are beyond reason. Mark is exactly right when he describes guns as instruments of killing. While I disagree with him as to whether or not a Catholic can/should own a gun, I do feel that it is important to keep in mind that a gun is a weapon. The gravity of that fact demands a healthy respect for guns. To that effect, I believe every gun owner needs to be licensed (just like anyone who drives a car needs to be licensed); I believe a background check is important, especially since it is against federal law for a felon to own a gun, or to provide a felon with a gun (so a bit of cya there); I think a waiting period is a good idea to help with those few cases where someone might need a day or two to calm down before he actually receives his gun; and I think a gun should come with a title, like a car, that has to be transferred to the new owner with a minimum sale of $1.00 (so you can then go down to the county office and pay your $0.06 tax).

  • 24 to 48 hour waiting periods. I’ve encountered opposition to this idea and I’ve been told (I wouldn’t be surprised) that some politicians actually vote against such laws. Common sense would suggest that if a person cannot wait two measely days to get a gun, perhaps it would be prudent to think twice about giving it to them.

    I remember watching an interview once with a woman who had sought to buy a gun in a locality with a waiting period, and then was attacked and raped during the waiting period. In that case, at least, a waiting period turned out to be pretty harmful.

    Now you might say that such occurances are rare. And you’re probably right. But then cases where someone goes to buy a gun in order to kill someone and then changes his mind about it during the waiting period aren’t that common either. In fact, it is not obvious that cases of the former type are not more common than cases of the latter type. And unless one can establish that the latter sort of case is more common than the former, then the justification for the law would seem to be rather weak, even aside from considerations of inconvenience.

  • I wonder what Saint Gabriel Possenti would have to say?

  • As a friend of mine said….

    When seconds count, the police are only minutes– or hours– away.

  • blackadderiv-
    I’ve heard of a couple of cases where the dead woman was found with a card that indicated she had a restraining order aginst the murderer, and that she was to pick up her handgun the next day….

    Yeah, worked great, eh?

  • “I’ve heard of a couple of cases where the dead woman was found with a card that indicated she had a restraining order aginst the murderer”

    How true Foxfier. I’ve often been in court when judges issue orders of protection. The judges usually admonish the petitioners that the orders of protection are merely pieces of paper and that they still need to take precautions for their safety. The police will often tell people that they cannot guard them twenty-four hours a day. A gun is often the only means by which a physically weaker potential victim, usually a woman, has any chance against a stronger assailant.

  • I can think of a few people in the old testament who, not only owned weapons of killing, but were commanded by God to use them swiftly.

    *picks up the indiana jones whip he got for christmas and wonders… wwjd*

  • If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.
    Also, if Catholics don’t own guns, only non-Catholics will own guns.

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Catholic Rights Talk

Tuesday, October 7, AD 2008

It’s become increasingly common for the Church to talk about “rights” when describing our fundamental duties to our fellow men. Reading through Faithful Citizenship, you’ll find several references to the “fundamental right” to life, echoing statements by the late Pope John Paul II in various encyclicals. However you’ll also find reference to the right to a just wage, housing, accessible health care, the choice of where to educate one’s children, etc. For instance: “Affordable and accessible health care is an essential safeguard of human life and a fundamental human right.” (Faithful Citizenship, 80) “Parents—the first and most important educators—have a fundamental right to choose the education best suited to the needs of their children, including public, private, and religious schools.” (Faithful Citizenship, 72)

I must admit, I really wish the Church had not got into using “rights” terminology at all — in part because I think the Church is using the term “right” in a different way from the standard American usage, thus causing confusion; and in part because it seems to me that it reverses the direction of obligation in human actions.

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32 Responses to Catholic Rights Talk

  • Darwin, this is a very helpful post.

    Especially this:

    Rather, this “rights talk” seems to me a sort of backward discussion of our mutual obligations to one another.

    The Church does not seem to be using the term “rights” as it is used in usual discussions of justice, of who owes what to whom. I wish the Church would elaborate on its use of the term right. It’s vague and hard to understand now.


    There is no doubt that the upcoming Presidential election is proving to be one of tremendous consequence on a variety of issues; issues that are core to our Catholic faith, issues that will have significant impact on us, future generations and the future of our country.

    With that in mind, we would like to invite you to join in the Voice Your Vote discussion to share your views, thoughts and ideas.

    Its about whats most important to you.

    Speak up and let your voice be heard!

  • I agree and disagree. I think the Church should not give up using “rights” as a form of terminology. I imagine you wouldn’t either, but were stressing a point (correct me if I’m wrong). We’d have to give up talking about “freedoms” and other terms that aren’t exclusively used in Catholic circles. We need to have an outreach of catechesis (which is failing) or, at best, in Church documents clarify in no uncertain terms what the Church means by ‘rights,’ which as you rightly state refers to something that is due to us by our human dignity. The ‘what’ that is due and what they mean by, say, healthcare needs clarification.

    I personally think “Faithful Citizenship” is a horrid document. It gives Catholics a crash course in natural law morality applied to politics, with as you say, presuppositions that everyone understands ‘rights’ and ‘proportinate reasons’ (in regard to the voting for pro-choice questions) and with little clarification presupposing that most American Catholics understand. Does the document reflect Church teaching? Definitely. As a voting guide and an instruction for confused Catholics in America? Good luck.

  • Unfortunately many documents that the USCCB endorses or issues are off target, Faithful Citizenship being one of them. I still find it difficult to adhere to many things the USCCB says, but there are pronouncements that do hit their target.

    But some of make the mistake of treating the USCCB as an alternative magisterium, using them as tools in the political arena.

  • “Similarly, when we talk about a “right” to a just wage, it seems to me that this cannot be taken to mean that people have some sort of innate right to a specific monetary wage level…’

    Indeed; moreover, jobs serve different purposes to different people. Not everyone is trying to singlehandedly support two kids and pay a mortgage. Convenience, flexibility, and the ability to work from home are some of the factors that may be considered in a job search.

    The notion that every job out there has to provide a certain level of pay and/or benefits limits options not only for the employer but for the employee. The implementation of that notion generally results in job loss for some, not in better jobs for all.

    Perhaps the “right” needs to be seen as an individual right to seek out jobs and negotiate job terms that as much as possible suit one’s own needs. To that end, a diversity of job options is more just than is a standardized wage.

  • “Unfortunately many documents that the USCCB endorses or issues are off target, Faithful Citizenship being one of them. I still find it difficult to adhere to many things the USCCB says, but there are pronouncements that do hit their target.”


    Care to back this up with some argument?

  • Mark DeFrancisis,

    The Seamless Garment, the footnotes to the New American Bible, USCCB’s movie reviews, and Faithful Citizenship.

    Need more?

    Or are you going to continue with ad hominems and other deragatory remarks?

  • All,

    And I guess the Thomist Jacques Maritain was wrong to pen the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights, eh? Maybe he did not read enough manuals and got off track..


    You are the one making quite a bold move– as a self-confessed non-intellectual layman– in issuing such blanket judgments on the USCCB, the NAB et al.

    It seems that the onus to justify your continuation of derogatory remarks is on you, don’t you think?

    Fellow AC bloggers,

    Step up to the plate and show the substance (or lack thereof) of this blog.

  • Mark DeFrancisis,

    Straw man arguments and ad hominems will not be tolerated on this blog.

    Your antics may pass for “intellectual commentary” over at Vox Nova, but it won’t fly here.

  • Tito,

    You accuse me of an ad hominem in my first comment, challenging your simple, negative assertion of the USCCB. I made no such thing in my first comment. I merely pointed out that you offered no argument or evidence for you statement about the USCCB, which, by the way, puts you dangerously close to being at odds with the local teaching authorities of the Church

    Or, maybe I am wrong. Can you explain to me what an ad hominem is?

  • (I am not even going to pretend that I am on the same debate level as you guys! My question here is not meant as a springboard to argumentation but as a request for clarification.)

    How is “a right to health care” the same as the right to any specific procedure? The question of what is the right to health care is asked, but in order to answer that you have to answer what health care is. “Caring for the sick” is what “health care” is — that and preventing people from getting sick in the first place. Where in that do specific procedures or levels of care lie? Is anyone who talks about health care rights really saying “free MRIs for everyone!!!”?

  • It would be a mistake, I think, to use only “rights” language when speaking of morality. The ethics of rights is an ethics of obligation, but there’s moral to the moral life than obligation. Virtue, for example.

  • I’ve no problem with speaking of healthcare being a right, but that shouldn’t be reduced to meaning that someone else has an obligation to providing me healthcare. I have rights, and I also have to respect my rights. If my right to healthcare obligates that I receive adequate healthcare, then I too am obligated to act.

  • Either ‘side’ could make a long list of what the modernists have done that is either in line with or against the teachings of the Church. Asking for credentials and challenging authority are devices used by dissenters to bring not only personal convictions but everything else up to Papal pronouncements into question. The idea is that persistent questioning will eventually create a breech in the wall and change will flood into the Church. Dialogue is the last chance to keep the discussion going until those who oppose the progressives capitulate. Gone are the days of ‘Roma locuta est, causa finita est’. Truth cannot be compromised!

    Maybe one simply needs to observe whether a group such as the USCCB has added value to the Catholic Church in America by their very existence or have contributed to the confusion and uncertainty that appears to be prevalent in our Church today. A telling indicator is that much of what they publish is used by both ‘sides’ to prove their stand on issues. That just does not sound like properly forming consciences to me.

    To me and not a few other unenlightened and uneducated(not progressive nor indoctrinated) laity there seems to be an ineffective witness by the USCCB to the truths taught by our Church. I think that there is no worse personal attack(ad hominem) than to abrogate your responsibility as a shepherd by allowing wolves in sheeps clothing to decimate the faithful while catering to the sensitivities of those who publicly and boldly defy Church teachings.

    In te, Domine, speravi; non confundar in aeternum.

  • Tito & Mark,

    National bishops’ conferences are certainly not guaranteed to be free from error (Dutch Catechism, anyone?) but I would certainly not call into question the entire corpus of writing which comes out with the USCCB name on it — both because that seems inappropriate for me to do as one of their flock and because I don’t think it’s an accurate characterization. If Tito meant to do that, I disagree with him.

    However, I would agree that some USCCB documents have been problematic — not so much in teaching anything false, but rather in emphasis and level with respect to their intended audience. Always Our Children springs to mind as a serious example of this. I don’t think that Faithful Citizenship is intended to be misleading at all, but it does read as a very heavily committee-written work, and one of the ways that committees of experts often find consensus is to push out to more general statements couched in more technical terminology. Some of this went on with Faithful Citizenship, with the result that while I’d say it’s a valuable resource and is not untrue or misleading, it is not as straightforward for the average layman to read as I could wish.

    Finally, I think it’s important to distinguish when talking about the USCCB between items put out by their lay employees and side committees (such as their movie reviews) and their documents which are worked on and approved by the bishops and are meant to be serious teaching tools.

  • Rebekka,

    I think the right way to understand the “right to healthcare” would be that we have a right as human beings to have made available to us the means (such as are available in any given time an place) to take care of ourselves and our families. We also have the duty to take care of others around us to the best of our abilities, and the right to expect them to do the same for us.

    So no, I don’t think one could say that there’s a human right to any given procedure, but rather that we have a right/duty pairing to provide for our brothers and sisters with whatever means are available to us.

  • Lance,

    While I can understand frustration with some of the USCCB’s documents, and have shared it on a few occasions, I think you may being a little over hard on them.

    Among other things, I’m not sure there ever was a ‘Roma locuta est, causa finita est’ in the sense that everything was sure, and clear and easily defined. There have always been issues on which the Magisterium either has not yet spoken, on where the local authorities or even some in Rome are hesitant to speak clearly and bravely in regards to the troubles of the day.

    While the times are bad in right now, I think we have reason to think they have got better over the last ten years, and that under the guidance of Benedict XVI (as under John Paul II) the barque of Peter is gradually accustoming itself to the choppy waters of the modern world.

  • “So no, I don’t think one could say that there’s a human right to any given procedure, but rather that we have a right/duty pairing to provide for our brothers and sisters with whatever means are available to us.”

    I agree with you that rights and responsibilities go hand in hand. But is that right/duty at the individual or at the societal level?

    An individual can bring someone some chicken soup. But you can look at a society as a whole bunch of individuals, who all show up with chicken soup because that’s what they each can muster as individuals, or as a group who has the means to provide *equal access to health care according to each person’s needs* — which is more right?

  • DarwinCatholic,

    I agree on your well written response.

    If what I said seemed to be a wide brush of negativity on all of the USCCB’s pronouncements then I want to rescind that perception. It’s certain bulls and statements that eminate from the USCCB that instead of clarifying positions it causes more confusion.

    There is a need for a national bishops conference. Like any human organization the USCCB is not mistake prone. Unfortunately there are too many mistakes to overlook and not respond to appropriately.

  • At the risk of letting my narcissistic side show, I wrote a post on this very subject a little while ago, which I believe goes to the very point Darwin is making here.

  • BA,

    Great post at your Lair. It’s amazing how convaluted and confusing this can be when the word “rights” is thrown around carelessly by both secular and religious authority.

  • Tito and Darwin,

    I certainly agree that things seem to be getting better although there are some regions where there has been little or no acknowledgment that things are changing. Probably one of the reasons(not an excuse) for my rough edges is partly due to location. I live deep in the Bible Belt and must keep my armor on(including a backplate) and sword handy at all times.
    The denizens here respect straightforward truth and conviction and are very suspicious of ambiguous or veiled statements.

    Catholics are 2 – 3 % of the general population here and the missteps, vagueness, and lack of action by our National Conference is not lost on our separated brethren. In fact, they seem to be more aware of what our leadership does than the vast majority of my fellow Catholics. However, they are also very intent on Christianizing Catholics and are in the right place to receive moral and material support to do so.

    In the last eight years we have had parish meetings to ‘explain’ Dominus Iesum and the fairly recent Motu Propio. I dare say there was more negative reactions from Catholics on both of these important documents than from the Protestants. We have a real identity problem and I still stand by the assertion that little has been done in this regard by the national level of leadership to help the ‘workers in the fields’.

    On another point. I do believe that Rome is ignored more so than in the past. Maybe it is because there is no longer a feeling that Rome will actually punish errant clerics and religious?

    Cor Mariae dulcissimum, iter para tutum.

  • Blackadder,

    Good point. Actually, I should confess, though I was set off on this post by a Faithful Citizenship reference, I also re-used some of the text which I originally wrote in responding to your post. Which was very good.

    No offense meant in dropping that bit of context.

  • Interesting post. I was listening to Dr. Roderick’s podcast this morning and he spoke about minimum wage. Seems that the minimum wage in The Netherlands is about twice as high as ours. The result is that, as he explained in an earlier podcast, he’s paying 1,000 Euros a month for a very modest 2-room apartment. (He didn’t tie to two together, that was my conclusion.) Seems that mandatory minimum wage just raises prices.

  • Lance,

    Unfortunately we cannot rely on the clergy or laypeople in positions of authority to teach the catechism properly or with fidelity.

    What we can do is educate ourselves, be a witness to others through practicing our faith, and prayer.

    One reason for this blog is to assist those that are looking to learn more about the teachings of the Church. Especially to how it relates to being a Catholic in America and the issues that arise from that.

  • Tito,

    Indeed. I was simply offering some of the experiences that I am sure many of us share out here in the general population and I know there are people who endure much worse.

    There are some good Catholic resources available and I thank God daily for the internet and access to material that I and others would never be aware of if we solely depended on our limited local offerings.

    My home library has become extensive(ran out of shelves years ago) and I consistently crack open the covers of at least a half dozen books at a time. Just recently finished Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth(great book once you get past the preface) and a non-catholic Syrian apologist’s comparative reading of the Gospel of St. John as it relates to the Quran.

    Much of what we laity try to communicate is ineffable and we are not always as erudite and ‘articulate'(everyone loves that word) as we could be.

    Pauper servus et humiluis.

  • “Unfortunately we cannot rely on the clergy . . . to teach the catechism properly or with fidelity.”

    You know, if our Popes, Bishops, and Councils have all embraced the terminology of “rights” (while maintaining that rights must be intertwined with “responsibilities”), who are we to question their fidelity, or their competence and authority as teachers?

    Just because some people can’t understand what the Church teaches doesn’t mean that we should criticize our Popes, Bishops, and Councils. They are the ones invested with teaching authority.

    Moreover, it seems that while many have a clear understanding of “responsibilities”, they don’t really understand “rights”. Rights do exist. A person has the right to life, a God-given right to life that no one may intentionally violate. Moreover, the right to life extends into other areas related to life – freedom of conscience and religion, family life, and health of mind and body.

  • Nate,

    I think you do make a good point about the importance of not becoming jaded about the teaching work of our clergy. Though many American laity feel they have been burned by the neglect or poor catechesis put out by our parishes in the last fifty years, we can’t close ourselves in and cease taking our priests and bishops as shepherds. (An unfortunate thing I often run into in my parish is that some of the families which would be most help with our catechesis program have completely checked out of any idea of working with a parish, because they believe RE programs are always a force of ill.)

    However, I do think it’s appropriate for laity to at least question the usage of “rights” terminology in a Catholic context. So far as I am aware, rights terminology remains very new — used a lot locally, sometimes by bishops, and a very few times by the last two popes. Historically, it’s not the way we’ve talked.

    Perhaps it is a good way to talk to the modern word, but if so I would love to see a clearer explanation of what we mean by it as Catholics. The right to life, clearly, is a basic natural right. We are given our lives by God and neither we nor anyone else can take that life away without just cause.

    My concern with the “right to health care” is that the general usage (which may very well not be what the Church means by it) seems to be, “I have a right to health care, therefore someone had better come give it to me.” And in that formulation, it’s not a natural right. If one is sitting around without a developed civilization to give one things, one’s life remains one’s own regardless. But there is no one to give you health care.

  • In an undeveloped civilization, I am sure that its inhabitants still have the natural right to health assisance from other inhabitants.

  • “Rights, in Catholic Social Teaching, serve as a means of orienting our thinking about questions of social policy. To say, in Catholic Social Thought, that something is a right is to say that it is a constitutive element of the Common Good (which Gaudium et Spes defined as “the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment“). So, for example, when the Church declares that there is a right to basic health care, what She is saying is that access to basic health care is one of the conditions of social life which allows access to human flourishing and fulfillment, and that achieving this right should be a central goal of social policy.”

    Very well written BA. I might just add that human fulfillment ultimately is a spiritual and not a temporal end. This is not to say that the common good (and rights) do not have a temporal dimension. Rather the common good must keep in mind the eternal end of all the individuals of society.

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