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?


Anonymous said...

You might be interested in Nicholas Wolterstorff's, Justice: Rights and Wrongs (2008). He attempts to defend a view of inherent rights and dispute the 'right order' narrative of Macintyre and O'Donovan et al. He gets pretty riled up about the quote from MacIntyre you reproduced above :)

Ben Myers said...

Yeah, Wolterstorff's book is a tour de force, even though I disagree with it completely. From a historical angle, John Witte's stuff is also extremely good: in addition to his great works on law in Lutheran and Calvinist traditions, I've just started reading his big collection of essays, God's Joust, God's Justice (Eerdmans 2006): brilliant stuff!

kim fabricius said...

I absolutely take your point, Ben, assuming the culture of which it speaks and the audience to which it is directed (though on its own, the language of obligation, on the right, is just as open to abuse as the language of rights, on the left). On the other hand, the wholesale disposal of the language of rights, precisely in a disordered society, makes me very nervous. As I say, audience: how would this post read in a prison, a slum, a sweatshop?

Austin Eisele said...

I have a few questions: first, what are the essential Calvin texts where he deals with this (in the Institutes? Commentaries?)?
Second, how does Calvin understand the point of the political? As an American Evangelical, I'm very frustrated with my own community's inability to accept something as simple as universal health care, because the argument goes that if forces government to trample on rights. What would Calvin's position be in such a debate?

Anyway, this sounds like it will be a fascinating paper.

Daniel Imburgia said...

Have youall discussed Pope Bendict’s latest encyclical “Caritas In Veritate’ on this site? (available on-line). It came to mind after reading Ben’s interesting intro to his paper. It seems as if much of the encyclical treats of the same important issues Ben, Calvin, Hobbs and Macintyre (as well as Kant, Hegel and Chief Red Cloud)have all addressed. Let me offer one selection from chapter 4: “43. “The reality of human solidarity, which is a benefit for us, also imposes a duty”[105]. Many people today would claim that they owe nothing to anyone, except to themselves. They are concerned only with their rights, and they often have great difficulty in taking responsibility for their own and other people's integral development. Hence it is important to call for a renewed reflection on how rights presuppose duties, if they are not to become mere licence[106]. Nowadays we are witnessing a grave inconsistency. On the one hand, appeals are made to alleged rights, arbitrary and non-essential in nature, accompanied by the demand that they be recognized and promoted by public structures, while, on the other hand, elementary and basic rights remain unacknowledged and are violated in much of the world[107]. A link has often been noted between claims to a “right to excess”, and even to transgression and vice, within affluent societies, and the lack of food, drinkable water, basic instruction and elementary health care in areas of the underdeveloped world and on the outskirts of large metropolitan centres. The link consists in this: individual rights, when detached from a framework of duties which grants them their full meaning, can run wild, leading to an escalation of demands which is effectively unlimited and indiscriminate. An overemphasis on rights leads to a disregard for duties. Duties set a limit on rights because they point to the anthropological and ethical framework of which rights are a part, in this way ensuring that they do not become licence. Duties thereby reinforce rights and call for their defence and promotion as a task to be undertaken in the service of the common good. Otherwise, if the only basis of human rights is to be found in the deliberations of an assembly of citizens, those rights can be changed at any time, and so the duty to respect and pursue them fades from the common consciousness. Governments and international bodies can then lose sight of the objectivity and “inviolability” of rights. When this happens, the authentic development of peoples is endangered[108]. Such a way of thinking and acting compromises the authority of international bodies, especially in the eyes of those countries most in need of development. Indeed, the latter demand that the international community take up the duty of helping them to be “artisans of their own destiny”[109], that is, to take up duties of their own. The sharing of reciprocal duties is a more powerful incentive to action than the mere assertion of rights." Obliged, Daniel.

Anonymous said...

Ben, I'd be interested in reading your entire paper. Your ( calvins?) view sounds very kirkian. Benstafford at gmail

Anonymous said...

Your position is very global and, therefore, somewhat vague. Of course I haven't read the entire paper, and so that may not be fair. But on the local level--let's say, in the USA for instance, when "rights" are at issue it is almost always with a basic understanding that these are not inherent and subjective, but always connect back to the founding documents of American government.

If the Declaration of Independence declares "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness" to be "inalienable," someone like MacIntyre might say that's a bogus claim, but in terms of our laws and policies, it's the fact that Jefferson, Franklin, et al thought that to be the true and included that language in their declaration that's on point, not whether or not they were deluded, and the same is true with our "Bill of Rights"--we understand that Bill is man-made, but we all want equal access to those rights. What is given to some should be given to all, regardless of the metaphysical "truths" of how the world, or human nature, works. And THAT'S when the language of "rights" almost always comes up.

Anonymous said...

Ben, while I share something of Kim's nervousness (and would love to read your response to the questions Kim raises), it sounds like a great paper, certain to do at least one thing that a good conference paper should do - birth conversation. I trust that it does so, and I look forward to reading the entire piece when and if it is published.

Anonymous said...

I've noticed that no one has addressed Kim's point -- how would this sound in the sweatshops, etc.? Wolterstorff makes much the same point in the work that was referenced earlier. It is one that I do not think MacIntyre has an answer to, nor, apparently, does Ben.

Ben Myers said...

Sorry for the slow response to Kim's comment — Calvin had temporarily worn me out, and I didn't have the energy to post a reply yesterday.

A similar question was raised after I read the paper at the conference (I had been arguing that rights are the consequence, not the basis, of politics): but what about refugees, for whom so much depends on the existence of some kind of pre-political rights?

I think it's in these practical considerations that the real problem with rights becomes most acute. The refugee might claim a right to asylum in Australia. But, as a citizen of Australia, I also have certain rights — for example, the right to security, the right to protect the borders of my national territory, etc. So what happens in this situation, where someone else's rights come into conflict/competition with my own? The simple answer is: the strongest party wins. This is in fact what happens to refugees on a regular basis: no one denies their possession of inalienable "human rights": the real question is what happens when those rights come into conflict with the rights of other, more powerful groups.

Which brings me back to Hobbes's analysis of the state of nature: a political situation defined by individual rights will descend into a sheer contest of power, the bellum omnium. That's why Hobbes thinks it's better to have a just and peaceable society than to be a possessor of rights.

So to return to the refugee anecdote (or think of a sweatshop worker instead, if you prefer): perhaps what this person really needs is not the ability to assert her own human rights (since in any case she lacks the power to enforce those rights). What she really needs is a just society that understands itself as obligated to do what's right for her.

Human rights discourse might feel empowering; but empowering feelings are no substitute for a justly-ordered society.

kim fabricius said...

I'm still nervous. Even Hobbes allowed the exception of self-defence as an inalienable right - but then insisted that one's security is best guaranteed by the sovereign. The sovereign also decides "what is right", and, even though Hobbes denied the divine right of kings, he declared that the sovereign can never be unjust, i.e. he cannot be wrong about "what is right". (It's beeen a long time since I read Leviathan, so I'm relying here on the entry on Hobbes in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy [1995].) Are you happy, Ben, with this thinking as the basis of "a just and peaceable society"?

Another guy who didn't like the idea of human rights was Jeremy Bentham, who famously described it as "nonsense on stilts". The father of utilitarianism - there is another guy to whose home I'd take a long spoon if he invited me to supper!

Look, I completely agree that "rights" cannot be the basis of a just political order. I am wary of the language of rights not least because of its ideological origins in emergent capitalism. Then there is the abuse of the language of rights by putative libertarians, who use it to mask oppression (as the liberation theologians caustically observed of Reagan's rhetoric and policies in Latin America). Moreover, rights-language often fails to sound the depth grammar of systemic injustice, and, theologically, it does not know what to make of the "powers". Finally, the idea of justice itself must surely be coupled with, and even subordinate to, peace - and forgiveness - if it is to have ultimate theological credibility.

All these things I see. Nevertheless, that refugee (or prisoner, or slum-dweller, or sweatshop-worker) - yes, "she really needs a just society that understands itself as obligated to do what's right for her." However, that sounds to me like the church - at least the church Jesus calls us to be. But Leviathan? Not as we know it, Spock. Given that Leviathan is a such a voracious beast, what the refugee needs immediately, in her desperation, is rights, not only rights that she may assert, because, yes, she will undoubtedly lack the power to enforce them, but rights that others witnessing to the peaceable kingdom in work and prayer may assert and enforce on her behalf.

In short, rights-language needs deconstruction, but I am still not convinced that, between-the-times, it warrants complete demolition rather than careful reconstruction.

cynthia r. nielsen said...

You inspired me with the post, Ben. Post coming soon...

Dustin said...

sheesh-I was just considering this discussion in light of the health-care debate in the States, where I posted an indignant response to the seemingly bellum omnia contra omnes tone of the reform debate here. While the reform minded side seeks the admittedly foggy goal of "universal coverage" (assuming it is a right that all should have here), the anti-reform (or usually conservative) side sees it as an infringement of their private healthcare, and are suspicious of gov't hands.

I was exasperated that the Church had mostly just cuddled up to a specifically political side one way or the other, and was hardly talking about the fact that the debate matters really only to the mid-lower-middle class and working poor in the States. The wealthy will always have the healthcare they need and want, but the less well-off are the ones it matter to anyways.

So i keep wondering if the Church in this case pushes with the more liberal reformers, just to expand the umbrella, using the gov't as a tool of justice, or does it remain in middle ground, trying to help with resources it doesnt have to cover its flock with financial help when medical cast catastrophes occur?

Is there a place in Hobbes or Calvin for viewing the gov't as a tool of use for the Church, but not a co-conspirator, or does it create too much Constantianism, or latent co-opting of religion by a cynical State?

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