Saturday, 29 August 2009

On Calvin, Hobbes, and rights

Sorry for the slow posting lately: my Calvin paper kept me holed up all week, stressing and sweating over those huge tomes. The paper ended up with the title, “Rights, Resistance and the Common Good: Calvin’s Political Theology”. Here’s an excerpt from the conclusion:

Early modern politics took up one particular thread from Calvin’s thought – not his overarching vision of a rightly ordered society, but instead his “minor theme” of the subjective rights of citizens. In the history of political thought, this doctrine of subjective rights – rights that I possess, rights that are my entitlement – produces an increasingly individualising understanding of politics. Politics becomes more and more a contest between competing individual freedoms and rights. My relation to society is defined no longer in terms of our mutual responsibilities and obligations, but in terms of what society owes me as a private individual.

I think the extraordinary expansion in recent years of a culture of litigation in western societies is simply a further step in this direction: my place in society is defined by the rights I possess, by what the rest of society owes me. A society of litigation begins to look frighteningly like what Thomas Hobbes called the bellum omnia contra omnes, the war of everyone against everyone else. This was exactly Hobbes’s point: a society in which everyone asserts their own rights will necessarily descend into violence and chaos; what is needed, Hobbes argued, is the relinquishment of such rights for the sake of a good and peaceable common life.

Regarding subjective “human” rights, I myself think Alasdair MacIntyre is entirely correct: “The truth is plain: there are no such rights, and belief in them is one with belief in witches and in unicorns…. Natural or human rights … are fictions.” You are not born with rights; you are born into communities and traditions that make such rights possible. Subjective rights, therefore, cannot be the foundation of politics, since these rights can only be the result of a well ordered common life.

In our time, I think a responsible theological reflection on law and politics might still have a lot to learn from Calvin’s understanding of rights. Calvin poses some uncomfortable critical questions to our liberal individualist assumptions; and he might provide a critical resource towards a contemporary theological reconfiguration of the very nature of politics.

What would a political order look like if we understood rights not as inhering naturally in individuals, but as “that which is right” for the order of a society?

In this perspective, the political order is defined in terms of virtue, duty, obligations to one another and to our collective flourishing as a people. Here, my own identity is defined not in terms of what I am owed, but in terms of my obligations and commitments to the whole social order. What I’m inviting you to do here is to re-imagine politics – not as something that arises from the need to preserve individual rights, but as an order designed to establish the basic conditions within which a community of virtue might flourish. In such a society, the fundamental political question would no longer be what are my rights?, but rather, what is right?

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