Social Contract and Morality

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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Catholic Rights Talk

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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