05 March 2011

Meditation on "Rights" by Fr. Bede Jarrett

In his book, Meditations for Layfolk, Fr. Bede Jarrett asks the question, What constitutes a right? We hear the word frequently and it is used equally as a cry for freedom from the oppressed as well as to justify the tyranny of the oppressors.
I. Every rebel against authority takes to himself the name of right, and every act of authority bases itself on the same sacred claim.

How am I to know in my own case and in the cases of others, what is meant by the word? How can I tell whether I really have a right to this or that?

I am led to this thought first of all, that the word right is not primary but secondary; that is to say, it is based upon something else which is even more sacred. Every right is dependent on some duty which must precede it. I can have no rights except in so far as I have duties; and apart from what I owe to God, myself, and my neighbor, I have no real justification for any of my rights. That is the first and most important idea that I have to impress upon my mind, the intimate relation between the two things; so that I should never in my mind think of one without thinking also of the other (Try finding that concept in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or even our own Bill of Rights for that matter.)

II. Rights must, therefore, be described as the means to achieve duties. Once I find that I have a duty to perform, I shall find all sorts of conclusions following at once, and these conclusions establish definite rights. . . I may, therefore, quite shortly define a right as the necessary means to achieve an essential end.

III. This enlarges at once my idea of my rights, and imposes a responsibility on me on every occasion that I use the sacred word. I cannot claim anything as a moral right until I can prove that it is necessary for the fulfilment of some essential duty. Hence it is that if I can keep this idea well before my mind, I am in little danger of getting selfish in my life. If, whenever I find myself speaking of my rights (even in ordinary conversation), I set to work at once to see whether they are rights at all and what corresponding duties they oblige me to perform, I shall find that I shall not be so quick or so insistent in asserting them.It is a pity that the word "right" has become so popular a word, and they word "duty" so dull and respectable: for many people cannot stop speaking of the one who imagine it to be old-fashioned even to mention the other. Duties themselves do, indeed, demand in their performance some tax upon my pleasure or my will. I must deny myself something: to do what I ought to do, there must always be some self-sacrifice. My rights, therefore, become nothing more than the requisite opportunities for denying my own will. Let me clamor never for rights, but for the better understanding of my own destiny, and only assert that I must be allowed to fulfil my duty. Let me never use the word "right" without the swift consciousness of the duty involved: for rights from the very nature of the thing have nothing at all to do with private privileges (which are exceptions on the whole to be reprobated, and seldom if ever to be demanded), but sacred obligations.
There are obviously limitless situations that we can look at in light of this meditation but one in particular that comes to mind was the recent decision by SCOTUS regarding the 1st Amendment Case recently decided involving the Westboro Baptist Church. It seems to me that Justice Alito was right in his dissenting opinion.

1 comment:

Peter Gilles said...

It is refreshing to read Fr. Jarrett's piece. Thanks for posting.


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