What’s wrong with rights?

Late last year we were confronted by news of the horrific shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, USA. The senseless massacre of six adults and twenty children quickly sparked calls for governments to consider reforms for gun control, so as to protect lives and prevent these tragedies from happening in the future.

These calls resonated with many in Australia, where the federal government instigated gun control reforms in 1996 in the wake of the Port Arthur massacre.

Barely had the dust settled in Sandy Hook, however, when opposing voices began to speak up, insisting that such reforms would violate individual rights. However tragic the Sandy Hook incident was, they said, the move to curb people’s individual freedoms was a reactionary way to respond. Freedom must be maintained for all, or else people’s rights would be suppressed, leading inexorably towards other forms of oppression.

How do you respond to this kind of debate? Do you advocate curbing people’s rights as a preventative measure, or do you see this as giving oppression some kind of victory? The various countries we live in tend to influence us towards one response rather than the other. As an Australian citizen, and having known one of the victims of the Port Arthur massacre, my initial response was to side with those calling for reform. As I discussed this with people, the apparent ‘knock down’ argument seemed rather obvious: the right to life trumped the right to own a gun. Some of my American friends, though, argued that gun control does not work, but leads rather to the undermining of the US Constitution that guarantees rights and freedoms.

However, is prioritizing competing individual rights the best response we can muster as Christians? Is there perhaps a better approach—a distinctively Christian approach?

One of the things apparent in discussions of this sort is that, no matter which side of the debate we take, we have subtly adopted the assumptions of our communities as we frame our responses. We use the thought patterns, categories, and logic of the society around us. Now this is understandable to an extent. We are unavoidably affected by our contexts and cannot exist outside of them. Yet as Christians we are called to be counter-cultural. This does not mean being different to society for the sake of simply being different. Rather, it is a call to think about our world and the issues we face through a specifically Christian framework, and bring that to bear with godly wisdom. We are to be in the world, though not of it.

I don’t think we have done this well as Christians when it comes to the subject of individual rights. In the West we enjoy so many individual freedoms that we cannot imagine life without them. I, for one, am glad that my government does not tell me which faith I must or must not follow, which job I should do, or that my ethnic background precludes me from basic goods, services, or opportunities. In the West we operate day to day with all these individual rights enshrined in law, and we generally thrive. We celebrate past heroes of rights movements—the William Wilberforces, the Martin Luther King Jrs, and the Nelson Mandelas of the world, and we are grateful to God for their achievements that have bettered society. Why, then, would we want to question all of this?

In recent years, we have seen the question of rights come into sharp focus with issues beyond gun control. The debate (if that is the right word for it) over such issues as same-sex marriage and abortion has heightened the stakes. As Christians, we want to respond faithfully and wisely to these issues, upholding both the authority of Scripture and our obligation to be responsible citizens. Yet we struggle to counter arguments that appeal to rights. When we claim that there is something wrong with same-sex marriage, for instance, most people hear us saying that we want to deprive certain people of their rights by refusing to grant them equality. In a society that prizes rights, this accusation stings us and marginalizes us. Christians are seen as immoral, antisocial (in the fullest sense of that word), and even perverse. Yet we often do not know how to respond in a meaningful way. Like most people, it does not occur to us to look beyond the paradigm of individual rights.

I think this occurs partly because of the way society defines rights and understands their origin. Unlike, say, traffic laws, which are legal fictions manufactured to order our use of roads, and enacted through consensus, we see individual rights as connected to natural justice. They are simply part of the fabric of what is good and fair. The term ‘rights’ itself suggests things that are proper, both in the sense that they are appropriate and just, and that they are intrinsic—articulating and enshrining properties that derive logically from our nature as human beings in this world. It may have taken us millennia to understand this, but we have reached a stage in human history where we finally get it. Rights exist as part of reality! To borrow the terms of the American Declaration of Independence, individual rights are seen as self-evident truths, inalienable, and even God-given. They form the ethical foundations that enable our society to foster and protect life and liberty, and permit people to pursue happiness. Rights seem absolute. Without them, it would seem that the ethical edifice of society would crumble. Right and wrong would become mere arbitrary opinion, and only the powerful would have their way. Individual rights appear, then, to be a necessary check against tyranny and conflict, and they come out of an innate sense of natural justice. To think outside a paradigm of individual rights seems so wrong, unnatural, and unreal.

I hope we can see that these sentiments, which stand behind individual rights, are good and noble. They are meant to instil confidence in us so that individual rights become the basic ‘grammar’ of our ethics and approach to current affairs. Despite this, though, I believe the paradigm of individual rights is flawed. I do not mean they are flawed because, as fallen human beings, we are ourselves flawed and fail to observe or police them adequately. Rather, I believe the concept itself—individual rights—is misguided or inadequate at best. As Christians we have a better approach to social issues available to us.

So what is wrong with individual rights?

First, individual rights do not promote social cohesion in the way we think they do. We prize individual rights as a mechanism that gives each person autonomy within a general set of parameters. That is, I am given freedom to do what I like, so long as it does not harm anybody else. Most will recognize this as a form of the old adage, “Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you”. This sounds good and sensible, except it is actually not biblical. The ‘golden rule’ as stated by Jesus is “Whatever you want others to do for you, do also for them” (Matt 7:12; cf. Luke 6:31). The adage behind individual rights is not merely stating the same thing Jesus said, but in the negative. Rather, it has a substantively different goal and ethos. Jesus’ saying is about action, while the adage assumed by individual rights is about inaction. Jesus’ saying promotes relationship, social interaction, and a sense of obligation to others. The other adage promotes withdrawal and disconnection. Jesus’ words have community and interdependence as the goal. The adage of individual rights has individualism and independence as its goal, leaving room for community to exist only as a purely voluntary endeavour. Jesus’ words work in the opposite social direction, implying that there is a collegiality between all people.

The upshot of this is that individual rights privilege the self, not the community. They put a fence around ‘me’, preventing ‘you’ from dictating to me what I can and cannot do. While this has some definite positives to it, it also has a critical negative: human nature is inherently selfish. As such, promoting individual rights inescapably means fostering selfishness. This would not be the case if human nature were not so selfish, but it is. The adage “Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you” really becomes “You let me do whatever I want, and I’ll let you do whatever you want, and let’s not get in each other’s way”. This is the line taken by many today who champion various ‘rights’ causes. Yet this is not a formula for social cohesion and harmony, but for personal autonomy—also known as sin. It is poisonous to human flourishing.

Now don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that individual rights always promote sinfulness. They can be used to good ends. However, the system can be easily adapted to selfish ends. And given the human propensity to sin, this is a serious flaw.

Second, the concept of the individual is one that needs critiquing. The individual is the basic unit of our society, which is why we all need our own personal signature. This set-up has its clear advantages, such as ensuring innocent people are not prosecuted for the crimes of others. However, God does not actually deal with us as individuals. This might sound surprising to many, and probably sparks the question, “Does God then deal with us corporately?” The answer to that is ‘not exclusively’. Yet, the fact that most would ask that question is telling, because we have been conditioned to think that the alternative to ‘individual’ can only be ‘corporate’. There is, though, a biblical alternative: the person.

“Personhood is about having a distinct identity defined not only by the self, but also by other persons. In other words, a person is who they are because of who God created them to be in relation to others.”

At this point, you might be wondering what the difference is between the individual and the person. The individual is a generic human unit. While that human unit might have a name, gender, relationships, and history, these are of peripheral concern. The individual is simply the self—the sole self. Persons, on the other hand, are mutually defining. Personhood is about having a distinct identity defined not only by the self, but also by other persons. In other words, a person is who they are because of who God created them to be in relation to others.

This concept of personhood comes from Trinitarian theology. God has revealed himself as triune: three distinct persons—Father, Son, and Spirit—in one being. These are not three different individuals, for if that were the case we would have three gods. There is only one God, but three persons. The Father is not the Son and nor is he the Spirit. However, the Father is Father only because of his relationship to the Son and the Spirit. He is not merely like a Father. He is Father by nature. Without the Father, there is no Son and there is no Spirit. Similarly, without the Son and the Spirit, there is no Father. Together, these three distinct but mutually constituting persons are a single being—a personal and communal God.

This helps us understand one of the most fundamental truths about God’s being: God is love (1 John 4:8, 16). Father, Son, and Spirit live in perfect unity as one God. Love is intrinsic to God’s nature. The three persons of the Godhead are not independent; they are mutually constituting, each person defined by his relationship to the others. Each of the divine persons does not insist on his own ‘rights’, or exist in seclusion from the others. One person does not withdraw from the others and demand that the others not do to him what he would not do to the others. On the contrary, each person of the Godhead lovingly empties himself so that he might fill the others in the Godhead and, in turn, be filled by them. There is complete and perfect mutual love.

When we understand this of God’s nature, we should begin to see what the distinctively Christian attitude to ethics and current affairs should be. The Christian ethic is not based on rights. It is based on love.

Now God is completely unique in being triune, for nothing else in all creation has this same nature. Nonetheless, humanity is created in God’s image so that we in some way reflect God’s character. We do this in two ways. First, each of us personally—men, women, boys, and girls—is a reflection of God and, therefore, deserving of love and respect. Second, we are in God’s image as a collective humanity. We reflect both the personal and the communal nature of God. He has not created us as generic individuals designed to live in selfish autonomy from each other, but as persons made for relationship with each other. Even our propensity to sin does not alter this God-given reality.

Our attitude, therefore, needs to be that of Christ Jesus, who, because he existed in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be prized, but rather emptied himself, taking the form of a servant (Phil 2:5–7a). In doing this, he did not do something foreign to his nature, as though living in service of others were a new experience for him. On the contrary, God the Son has always existed in loving service of others by virtue of his identity in the Trinity. At the incarnation, he merely assumed the earthly form of what has been proper to him for all eternity. And he did not lay aside this attitude of loving service when he returned to the right hand of the Father. He retains it as he always has. Jesus is our paradigm. It is his attitude that should form the framework of our thinking in the world.

As a result, we need to rethink our approach to individual rights. As Westerners we have become so focused on these rights that we are losing sight of the fact that society is meant to be a web of different but interconnected persons, with institutions and measures in place to serve the collective, not just the individual. We are created to love others actively, not to live despite each other. While we know that a completely loving society will not be achieved in this age, this does not abrogate our responsibility to work for the good of others in the here and now. Yes, we are strangers and aliens in the world, but we are called to love our neighbours as ourselves, to live sacrificially, to give up our rights for the sake of others.

“We have been shown the most excellent way of love in Christ, and therefore we have something of immense value to contribute. It is for the sake of others that we are called to give up our rights.”

Note that giving up our rights has a purpose. This is not about capitulating to the world, withdrawing from it, or remaining silent. We have been shown the most excellent way of love in Christ, and therefore we have something of immense value to contribute. It is for the sake of others that we are called to give up our rights. This is what it means to be human beings, created by the Triune God. This is why we are to speak the truth in love; to be as shrewd as serpents, and as harmless as doves. This is not a selfish ploy, or a power play; it is about sacrificial love.

This makes little sense to the Western world, for its framework of individual rights does not have the capacity to grasp it. The light has shone in the darkness, but the darkness has not mastered it (John 1:5). The Western world will applaud Christians for their voluntary service of others, because a society built on individual rights leaves ‘space’ between individuals for such voluntary endeavours, and praises it for going above and beyond the call of duty. However, it will interpret Christian critique of societal structures and policies as sinister and oppressive, motivated by fear or a desire for power over others.

This should not surprise us, though, because Western society no longer thinks in terms of a common good, but rather in terms of individual rights. In fact, Western society does not really care much anymore for an actual ‘society’, because Westerners do not really see themselves as part of a collective. The only real exception to this is the sporting arena. Westerners tend to see only individuals with rights, and try to banish structures that impede those rights, even if it may be legitimately contributing to a common good. ‘Me’ has completely eclipsed ‘us’. The attitude that demands, for example, no barriers to marriage, or refuses to see children as having anything to do with marriage, is the same attitude hamstringing the US federal government in relation to gun control: every ‘one’ has a right to self-determination, and it is wrong to deprive any ‘one’ of that right, no matter what. We have come to love rights more than righteousness.

The West has so reified the notion of the individual that the concept of ‘society’—the coming together of different persons for a common good and common purpose—is waning fast. The concept of rights, which was originally crafted to vouchsafe society and a common good, is ironically now undermining it. We have sacrificed personhood and society on the altar of rights and individualism. Society can no longer relate to us as the people we are—as men and women, as boys and girls, as husbands and wives, as fathers and mothers, as sons and daughters. Society can only really address us as individuals: anonymous, genderless, ancestorless, and childless. The terms that define us and our identity, which also link us to each other, have been eclipsed by the great ‘me’—a concept whose only identifying link is ‘not you’. There is no room for ‘us’ any more. And when we lose sight of ‘us’, we actually start to misunderstand ‘me’ as well, since as human beings we actually mutually define each other. We are losing our identity in the West. And we complain when the banks treat us as just a number!

Now, let’s think about the gun issue for a moment. If we think along individualistic lines, we will see everyone generically without distinction. This means treating anyone with a criminal background or a mental disability the same as a law-abiding, mentally stable citizen, affording them the same choices and opportunities. This puts us in a bind, for on the one hand we want to treat all people equally, and we affirm the desire to do so. On the other hand, though, the situation calls for measures that actually discriminate in some way to protect people. Our Western societies, which are based on individual rights, have a dilemma: uphold individual rights and weaken protection of human life, or instigate measures that do protect life but discriminate against certain persons by denying them their individual rights. A Christian approach that uses personhood and love as its basis will recognize that all people should be treated with love and respect because of their God-given worth. However, differences in personal responsibility, competence, and situation mean that some people should rightly be prevented from owning or handling a gun both for their own sake and the sake of others. Personhood and love allows for positive discrimination that promotes human life.

We already use this type of positive discrimination in certain areas of society. For example, we do not permit children to drive or make legal contracts. These may seem like ‘no-brainer’ issues, but if we look at them objectively, they actually deny rights to certain people. Although children often have a sense of entitlement and may tantrum to get their way, we still deny them these and other rights. Why? It is because we recognize their personhood and love them for who they are, discriminating positively for their own good and the good of society.

We do not think to apply this same standard of personhood and love, however, to other issues. The calls, for example, to redefine marriage to incorporate same-sex relationships are usually predicated on calls for equality—eradicating discrimination and treating all individuals the same regardless of those identifying qualities that distinguish them as persons. We have been so swamped by individualism that we no longer discern the collective purpose of marriage. With a sense of entitlement, then, gay couples cry foul at having been denied the individual right to marry. In an environment that lives and breathes individual rights, this is understandable and redefining marriage seems like a logical ‘correction’ to make. Yet, little thought is given to marriage as an institution that serves not only the two persons who marry, but also the larger collective of society, not to mention specifically the children that are presumed to come from marriage. Marriage is not an individual right, but a social institution that gives legal space within society for the natural generation of family (biologically connected persons)—something that requires two particular types of person: a sexually mature male and a sexually mature female. It provides a means by which personal identity contributes to the rest of society. A Christian approach to marriage will acknowledge the interconnectedness of all persons, not merely those with whom we choose to associate, for there is but one human race under God. It will see how sexual intimacy and procreation, its natural outcome, function within this one human race and contribute substantively to it. Sex, therefore, needs to be contextualized within society at large, not merely within an individual’s sphere. Marriage provides the means for this contextualization.

“The challenge we face as Christians is speaking out and acting on the basis of personhood and love in the midst of a society that demand rights, and more of them.”

The challenge we face as Christians is speaking out and acting on the basis of personhood and love in the midst of a society that demand rights, and more of them.  Under individualism, people consider rights something to be prized, and cannot really conceive of emptying themselves for the sake of others for a common good. As Christians, we are to have the attitude of Christ Jesus, who thought and acted in terms of personhood and love, not individual rights. How do we do this meaningfully when individual rights are ingrained into social and legal structures, as well as people’s hearts and minds? It’s a difficult question to answer definitively, and one for which I need guidance as much as the next person. One thing I do know: love is the key. To tell our world that individual rights are misguided or inadequate will make us unpopular and ugly in its sight. We will be misunderstood and vilified. But we must love in return, and pray that by putting love into action we will demonstrate that love is the most excellent way. As we do, we must wait in patient expectation of the age to come, when love will finally be perfected in the home of righteousness.

11 thoughts on “What’s wrong with rights?

  1. Pingback: What’s Wrong with Rights? | With Meagre Powers

  2. Whether we like it or not and whether individual rights themselves are a fiction or not, we cannot have freedom of religious expression *without* individual rights. The same right that allows “freedom” for abortion and “freedom” for same gender marriage allows me to disagree with those that believe they are free to engage in these practices, allows me to mostly agree with your article and write this response. While I agree that we should be prepared to give up our “rights” for the common good, who defines this elusive, elastic common good? Society should be allowed to morph and change – this change, based on individual human rights, brought (and still brings) the end to (once accepted) things like apartheid, institutional slavery and unequal legislative representation. I cant eat the societal cake of freedom and tell others how it must be made to suit me.

    • Jonathan, I think your comment actually illustrates George’s point rather well. When individual rights have become so enshrined that they can be used to justify abortion and same-sex marriage, it becomes clear (at least from a Christian perspective) that they must have their limits. As I read it, that’s what George is arguing for – that part of being counter-cultural as Christians should include resisting the all-pervasive paradigm that individual rights must trump every other consideration. Also… when you think about it, what is now the foremost weapon of those who would like to *curtail* freedom of religious expression? I’d say – individual rights!

  3. George, thanks for a great article. I’d like to add a wider (non-Western) perspective, though. As a minister here in Australia, I am very conscious of the need to resist our ultra-individualistic paradigm. But when I was a missionary in one of the South Pacific nations, it was just the reverse. The culture in many such nations is so focused on the community, on their *corporate* identity, that Christians need to be actively taught to be counter-cultural by putting their individual identity – a child of Christ – first. After all, in the final analysis our relationship with Jesus *must* be individual before it can be corporate.

    I have observed that much overseas missionary work (particularly short-term work) suffers greatly because those who go have not recognised that the Western individualistic paradigm they are used to does not apply. If a whole community claims to have converted to Christianity, it’s absolutely essential to deal with each person individually; otherwise you risk the very real possibility that what you are rejoicing in as a work of the Spirit is really only the corporate decision of the community elders.

    All which means that our fallen human natures will find ways to “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” no matter where our culture falls on the spectrum between fierce individualism and community at all costs.

    • Thanks for your input, Tim. Yes, I was specifically addressing Western individualism, so your comments do widen the scope.

      However, I’d say that God does not deal with us ‘individually’ first. Rather, I’d say he deals with us ‘personally’ first—that is, as the person we each are in relation to others.

      In the Old Testament God dealt with Israel primarily at the corporate level, but he placed the responsibility for obedience on persons. That’s why he makes just one covenant with the nation at Horeb, but the Ten Commandments are all in the singular. Then, at the incarnation, God the Son became a person. He didn’t become a group of people, but a person defined by relationships (e.g. he was born within the Jewish people). Since then, we must affirm that the basic unit of society should be the person-in-relation-to-others. We shouldn’t treat people as generic individual units without connections outside themselves. We should, rather, treat them as persons with relationships.

      As you rightly mention, it is wise for us to understand the cultures in which we operate. In some, it means pushing away from individualism. In others it means pushing away from collectivism. God’s way is to deal with persons—something that is intrinsic to his own Trinitarian nature.

      • I appreciate your distinction between the individual and the person. But wouldn’t you say that God deals with us ‘personally’ as the person we each are in relationship to *him*?

        • Absolutely. That’s how he deals with us first and foremost, yes. But he also deals with us for the person we each are. For example, he knows that I’m a male, the offspring of my two particular parents, etc. He doesn’t treat me generically. God knows me inside and out, better than I even know myself.

  4. “In the West we enjoy so many individual freedoms that we cannot imagine life without them. I, for one, am glad that my government does not tell me which faith I must or must not follow, which job I should do, or that my ethnic background precludes me from basic goods, services, or opportunities.”…But your government (Australian) does tell you – force you – that you must vote (in compulsory voting), which goes against the grain of democratic freedom somewhat!! It’s such a good system that only around ten to twelve other countries have compusory voting! I’d have our British system any day!

    • And look at the stability we enjoy in Australia. I don’t see how compulsory voting is a problem or a deprivation of democratic freedom. Quite the opposite, actually. It promotes the involvement of the people, which is what democracy is about, isn’t it? I don’t see the hindrance here. In any case, Duncan, I’m not sure I’m following your point. Are you just making a comment about voting in Australia, or is there a further point you’re making?

    • [Plant tongue firmly in cheek] Back in the 70’s your government (British) did tell you – force you – to pay a top income tax rate of 83%, 98% if it was investment income. On the whole I feel less oppressed by compulsory voting.

  5. This is a deeply penetrating article! It has brought great clarity and insight to my vague experiential awareness and concern about the disintegration of the fabric of society we have & are experiencing in the Western world. Distinguishing between the unhelpful views of individualism on the on extreme and communism on the other and showing the Christian corrective of person-in-relation-to-others as the correct way to undertand humanity and society is profoundly helpful! This Trinitarian revelation George has explained and applied is invaluable for all Christians. We need to be speaking up about its application to all ethical issues in our society. I’d love to hear more from you, George, about how to explain to our Secular world that society is meant to be a web of different but interconnected persons. Thanks again for such a helpful work!

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