Friday, March 16, 2007

Stanley Hauerwas on "Rights"

Here's something to think about. Hauerwas is a well-known and respected theologian, published frequently in First Things.

...Indeed I want to argue that America is the only country that has the misfortune of being founded on a philosophical mistake--namely, the notion of inalienable rights. We Christians do not believe that we have inalienable rights. That is the false presumption of Enlightenment individualism, and it opposes everything that Christians believe about what it means to be a creature. Notice that the issue is inalienable rights. Rights make a certain sense as correlative to duties and goods, but they are not inalienable. For example, when the lords protested against the king in the Magna Charta, they did so in the name of their duties to their underlings. Duties, not rights, were primary. The rights were simply ways of remembering what the duties were.

Christians, to be more specific, do not believe that we have a right to do with our bodies whatever we want. We do not believe that we have a right to our bodies because when we are baptized we become members of one another; then we can tell one another what it is that we should, and should not, do with our bodies. I had a colleague at the University of Notre Dame who taught Judaica. He was Jewish and always said that any religion that does not tell you what to do with your genitals and pots and pans cannot be interesting. That is exactly true. In the church we tell you what you can and cannot do with your genitals. They are not your own. They are not private. That means that you cannot commit adultery. If you do, you are no longer a member of "us."

Under the veil of American privatization, we are encouraging people to believe in the same way that Andrew Carnegie believed. He thought that he had a right to his steel mills. In the same sense, people think that they have a right to their bodies The body is then a piece of property in a capitalist sense. Unfortunately, that is antithetical to the way we Christians think that we have to share as members of the same body of Christ.

So, you cannot separate these issues. If you think that you can be very concerned about abortion and not concerned about the privatization of American life generally, you are making a mistake. So the problem is: how, as Christians, should we think about abortion without the rights rhetoric that we have been given--right to my body, right to life, pro-choice, pro-life, and so on? In this respect, we Christians must try to make the abortion issue our issue.

This is particularly clear when listening to Walter Williams' facile (and erroneous) Explanation of All Living in terms of Economics. It's a simple-minded (and wrong-headed) approach, which taken to its logical conclusion, would tell us that raising children is utterly devoid of value.

It also has an impact on the "right to privacy" debate. Not only is that phrase NOT found in the Constitution (and thus had to be put there, emanating-wise, by a creative group of Supremes in Griswold)--it is irreconcilable with a Christian notion of society, as Hauerwas shows above.

More curious: one wonders why the "right to privacy" was NOT present. Was this a case of the Homeric Nod by the authors of the Constitution and Bill of Rights?

HT: Dreher


David L Alexander said...

"More curious: one wonders why the "right to privacy" was NOT present. Was this a case of the Homeric Nod by the authors of the Constitution and Bill of Rights?"

Maybe it was a recognition that privacy was not a right under natural law, as would have been "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Nor does the Constitution give us the right to do what we want in private (where most criminal activity begins), nor what we want with our own bodies (like commit suicide). That is the work of judges acting as legislators.

Billiam said...

That means that you cannot commit adultery. If you do, you are no longer a member of "us."

This may be a quibble, but, as far as this statement goes, if said adulterer is repentant, he must be forgiven, and still considered one of "us". That said, I agree with the rest of your post. Good one, Dad. Worth thinking about.

Adoro said...

Great post.

I have to admit I started to disagree but then took another look at the word "inalienable", looked at the source, and then read on.

Given the context that he uses, I do agree with what he says, but still, I had to look up the formal definition:

"in·al·ien·a·ble –adjective not alienable; not transferable to another or capable of being repudiated: inalienable rights.

—Synonyms inviolable, absolute, unassailable, inherent."

So we DO have inalienable rights, however, we have to temper our understanding of what that means by also taking it into context with our human dignity. We do NOT have the "right" to ever committ an objective evil, such as adultery, abortion, etc etc etc...we could go on and on and this discussion could get very deep very quickly.

Suffice to say that I agree with the context of the article, and he is using the current court definition of "inalienable", which is fully subject to whoever is choosing to define it completely divorced from reason. Which is what our courts do on a regular basis. Thus, his refute makes perfect sense.

Dad29 said...

Yes, Billiam, repentance and forgiveness are part of the package of "us."

And A.T., I had to read the item a couple of times, too.

Recalling that one does not have a "right" to do what is wrong, the obverse is also true: one has a Duty to do what is Right.

That's the Magna Carta's thesis referenced by H. in the article. And yes, both judges and positive legislators are wrong on a number of the issues--meaning they fail the "duty" test.

Terrence Berres said...

Hauerwas says specifically "when the lords protested against the king in the Magna Charta, they did so in the name of their duties to their underlings." I doubt many Americans will see a philosophical problem with unalienable rights when the proposed alternative is derived from their rights as underlings.

Dad29 said...


I think you're glossing the M.C. item with a bit too much facility. I did not post H's entire essay. (That can be found here: and as you note, it's commentary on a sermon.

From that sermon:

"...when a person is baptized, the congregation answers this question: 'Do you, the members of this congregation, in the name of the whole Church of Christ, undertake the responsibility for the continued Christian nurture of this person, promising to be an example of the new life in Christ and to pray for him or her in this new life?' We make this promise because we know that no adult belongs to himself or herself, and that no child belongs to his or her parents, but that every person is a child of God. Because of that, every young one is our child, the church's child to care for. This is not an option. It is a responsibility."

More: Christians believe there is much worth dying for. We do not believe that human life is an absolute good in and of itself. Of course our desire to protect human life is part of our seeing each human being as God's creature. But that does not mean that we believe that life is an overriding good.

To say that life is an overriding good is to underwrite the modern sentimentality that there is absolutely nothing in this world worth dying for.

In the lecture, H. does not mention the soul, which causes some problems when he says that "life is not sacred."

Nor does he underline heavily the fact that God is the Author of life (fr. Latin, auctoritas, "authority," which may clarify the context.

Thus, the M.C.'s reference uses "lords" as a substitute for "God," to whom duty is really owed, with "lords" as temporals...

Dad29 said...
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