Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The Basis of All Other Rights

Noteworthy conversation with a somewhat liberal but very knowledgeable friend last week. He wondered how pro-lifers like me can prioritize abortion over (say) capital punishment.

I was a little surprised that a well informed man like my friend would not know better, so it took me a moment to respond (and rather imperfectly) that the right to life is the basis of all other rights. I should have also preceded that statement by observing that there are a hierarchy of rights, and adding that if a government can arbitrarily deprive the innocent of life, then no other right has any meaning.

(Whereas one may argue with the practicalities of capital punishment—whether the innocent are being executed—, the condemned are at least supposedly guilty of infringing on the rights to life of others, or of similarly grave crimes like rape.)

In 1993 Mother (now Saint) Teresa of Calcutta said with her characteristic simplicity:

Human rights are not a privilege conferred by government. They are every human being’s entitlement by virtue of his humanity. The right to life does not depend, and must not be declared to be contingent, on the pleasure of anyone else, not even a parent or a sovereign.

It is worth noting that there are limits to the validity of "rights talk." The idea of rights assumes that each human being is an autonomous, impenetrable individual bearing an ever-escalating number of priviledges, past even the "right to a paid vacation." A much better way to speak is traditional idea of justice, which incorporates the idea that each individual (or better: "human person") is part of a much larger whole that must be ordered to the (common) good of all. With our individualistic American mentality, we might smell socialism (or communism!), but I think the truth is that these modern ideologies incorporate elements of truth along with their falsehoods. (As the saying goes, the devil tells us nine truths to get us to believe a single lie.)

In truth, the individual is meaningless without a society in which to live, just as society can have no meaning unless the individuals who compose it have an absolute, God-given right to life. As Benjamin Franklin wisely said at the signing of the Declaration of Independence:

We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.

Mother Teresa's letter to U.S. Supreme Court regarding Loce v. New Jersey and Krail et al. v. New Jersey. [Full text] [Alt]


One Man's Struggle To Take It Easy said...

Profound again, it is funny how when caught in the cross hairs our natural defenses take hold and we can loose all control of our mental faculties, yet afterwards eloquence abounds. Well I thing it is as the Bible says one can put a thousand to flight, but two can put ten thousand to flight. We join in agreement on the issues that are important to our rights as justice to the courts, but as man imperfections are certitude.
Thanks for the lesson!
PS When do you post about Physics?

Lawrence Gage said...

Hello Abe,

Thanks for your question. Actually, in a broad sense, I have been posting about physics all along. You have reminded me that I need to explain, which is the reason for an old, unpublished post whose purpose I'd forgotten. I'll have to complete it and publish it soon.

As far as the narrower notion of "physics" is concerned, I do have quite a few things to say, though expressing them in a forum for non-specialists carries the burden of additional explanation. I would be interested to know what you have in mind though.