Preface for Maundy Thursday

It is very meet, right, and our bounden duty, that we should at all times, and in all places, give thanks unto thee, O Lord, holy Father, almighty, everlasting God, through Jesus Christ our Lord; who for our sins was lifted high upon the Cross, that he might draw the whole world to himself; who by his suffering and death became the author of eternal salvation for all who put their trust in him.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

An Image of the City, Part II: Little Fredegar

Where there is no temple there shall be no homes,
Though you have shelters and institutions,
Precarious lodgings while the rent is paid,
Subsiding basements where the rat breeds
Or sanitary dwellings with numbered doors
Or a house a little better than your neighbor’s;
When the Stranger says: ‘What is the meaning of this city?
Do you huddle close together because you love each other?’
What will you answer? ‘We all dwell together
To make money from each other’? or ‘This is a community’?
And the Stranger will depart and return to the desert.

—T. S. Eliot, Choruses from ‘The Rock’

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Before I examine positive rights further, I must make an important prefatory remark. My original intention had been to turn immediately to human sinfulness, and the effects this has on political theory, but I find I need to deal at more length with something else first. This post came largely out of the discussion I had with some friends (a writers’ group called Pints and Prose) about my previous post. In particular, the fact that I used a rights framework was debated, since several of those present don’t subscribe to an ethical or political theory based in rights. The truth is that I use the language of rights because it’s familiar to me, not out of any special philosophical commitment; it’s worth noting that rights language tends to center on individuals at the expense of every other consideration, and while a reasonable person might do that, I don’t think it’s really compatible with a robustly Christian anthropology. I’ll probably go on writing in terms of rights, because it’s familiar, as I said: but other frameworks are not only possible but, I imagine, profitable. Moreover, I expect (I do not know) that the salient points of any given ethical or political system could be ‘translated’ into the terminology of another such system, so I’m not too fussed about adhering to this system or that. Any system is worth using only insofar as it helps us grasp realities that exist independently of what we choose to call them.


Last time I tried to enunciate the difference between: negative rights, or rights against people interfering with each other; and positive rights, or rights to good things that would involve other people’s co√∂peration. An example of the first would be the right to life, which is the same thing as the right not to be killed. An example of the second would be the right to health care, which (supposing, as the Church does, that it exists) would imply some kind of obligation on those who have the resources and skills to care for health, to use those resources and skills on the sick as people, rather than the sick as customers, for example. This obligation is something that inheres in the sick and is based on their need for it, rather than something established only by voluntary contract. Can obligations of this kind exist?

Well, a Catholic must certainly answer Yes. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of mankind, past and present, does answer Yes: from Cicero’s maxim that ‘Men were brought into existence for the sake of men, that they might do each other good’ or the ancient Hindu saying that ‘The poor and the sick should regarded as lords of the atmosphere,’ all the way down to the famous line from the Spiderman mythos, ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’ There are only two traditions that consistently qualify, minimize, or occasionally reject this idea—what C. S. Lewis described as the positive law of general beneficence—that we have as much moral duty to render good things to others as we have moral right to protect our own. One is the Enlightenment-derived tradition of rights, rooted in thinkers like Locke, Rousseau, and Jefferson, and today represented most by the Libertarian Party; the other is the collection of nationalist, fascist, and racist ideologies that began in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries [1] and are today largely incarnated in the alt-right. [2] I utterly reject the second of these traditions, and have always had a slightly uneasy relationship with the first, precisely because of its strong tendency to neglect the poor—a deeply anti-Christian sentiment in any ethical or political system.

Even without appealing to ‘the universal opinion of mankind,’ though, we might observe that at least some positive rights are implied, to some extent, by negative rights themselves. If human beings have a right to life, but no right to any of the things by which life exists (such as food and drink, living space, and health care), then what the hell is the point of that right to life? It would be like pointing out that the Second Amendment guarantees us the right to keep and bear arms, but not the right to purchase bullets: yes, the logical distinction is there, but trying to build a moral or political system on that distinction is asinine.

But when trying to articulate positive rights in practice, things get more ticklish. It’s one thing to say that little Fredegar, who suffers from mumps, [3] has a right to health care; it is another to grab a doctor and say, ‘You shall treat little Fredegar’s mumps, because he has a right to health care.’ Aside from the obvious practical issue that this specific doctor may have no expertise in mumps, it does seem like an aggression against personal freedom; in addition, it evokes a particular logical fallacy called superalternation. This fallacy is reasoning from a particular statement to a universal, like: little Fredegar has brown eyes, little Fredegar is a human, therefore all humans have brown eyes. So here, the fact that every given person has a right to health care doesn’t mean that it’s the personal duty of a randomly selected doctor to provide that care to little Fredegar.

Yet doesn’t this land us back in the realm of purely negative rights? If little Fredegar’s right to health care can’t be ‘brought home’ to any particular health care provider, isn’t that open to the same criticism we made a moment ago, that negative rights are no good without some positive rights? Does it follow that positive rights themselves are, in practice, not much good themselves?

Possibly. As I said in my prefatory paragraph, a good deal of the conversation I had with my writers’ group on Monday was about the shortcomings of rights-based theory and language, and alternative approaches were discussed. All the same, rights language is what I’m familiar with, and I think we can express the proper solution to this ethical-political difficulty in that language, if we tweak it a little. [4]

In this rights language, we may affirm the following. When a person has a positive right to something, the duty to provide it impinges on society as a whole, and the duty is graver according to its necessity (health care is more needful than education) and urgency (mumps is more urgent than a cold). Insofar as society can only act through individuals, this duty naturally devolves to the people with (i) the most power to provide it and (ii) the closest relationship to the person in question.

Note, though, that while there are extremely intimate relationships like that between mother and child, and extremely distant ones like that between two complete strangers from opposite sides of the earth, the Christian view of man forbids us from regarding any two human beings as entirely unrelated. We are all, in however remote a degree, linked, and there are times when that impinges on practical decisions; the smaller a society is, the likelier it is that any given individual will have some duty to involve themselves in another person’s welfare. (The hypothetical extreme would be a doctor who specializes in mumps and little Fredegar being the only two people on a deserted island: it would then be the duty of that doctor specifically to treat little Fredegar, since for all intents and purposes the two of them are society in that context.)

Obviously, this would mean we need to have a hierarchy of rights—an idea which I had always found so natural and obvious that I was kind of shocked to discover that it isn’t a standard part of Enlightenment-tradition rights systems. But I think we could sort one out without too much trouble. Assuming I don’t get thrown another curveball, my next post will be about that.

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[1] To do them justice, the libertarians detest the ethnonationalists as a rule, partly for being racist and partly for being prone to tyranny. To do everyone else justice: libertarian ideas and rhetoric seem, judging from history, much more easily perverted into neglecting or preying upon the disadvantaged in a way that’s quite harmonious with ethnonationalism, than they are used to fight ethnonationalism. The non-interference that the libertarian tradition makes central can be made a weapon against a generalized oppression of everybody, but it is not so easily used against persecution, scapegoating, or oppression of the poor—which are precisely the things that usually happen when a government does become tyrannical, for whatever reason. Oppressing everybody at once is a stupid strategy and is accordingly not often tried.
[2] Contrary to widespread belief, while cultural and ethnic snobbery is probably as old as humanity, racism is (as far as we know) a comparative latecomer to the stage of human shittiness. In Europe and the Americas, it’s quite possible that it developed as a post facto justification for slavery and colonialism, rather than a pretext to start doing those things.
[3] It may be reasonably presumed that any child actually named Fredegar is currently suffering from mumps. Similarly, any child called Cholmondeley may be supposed to be a fair-haired bully at Eton, and any Wilfrid to be delicate, poetic, and never the same since young Master Harrington went away, if you’ll pardon my saying so, mum.
[4] One should never be afraid to tweak the language of a philosophical system. No system is exhaustive or flawless. A given tweak might be unhelpful, pointless, or detrimental, which is a good reason to examine proposed tweaks carefully; but that’s different.


  1. “precisely because of its strong tendency to neglect the poor—a deeply anti-Christian sentiment in any ethical or political system.“

    I think you are being unfair in this assessment. I would think that it is simply one of divergent approaches to the issue of poverty. Libertarians would stress the role of philanthropy rather than taxation and state run problems to “help the poor”. The emphasis on local rather than centralized efforts to alleviate poverty would also more resemble the Catholic principle of subsidiarity. Not sure how anarchy aims to help the poor, though.

    1. Well, I hope I am not being unfair, and certainly I don't wish to underrate philanthropy. Nonetheless, I'd look to the Mediaeval attitude to poverty, which did consider care for the poor a responsibility of society in general, as a matter of justice and notonly of charity. Emphasizing local rather than federal efforts to care for the poor is of course appropriate (especially from an anarchist perspective, which would encourage local everything over federal anything). But I think it can be said, without bias, that the Fathers and Doctors of the Church have always regarded giving to and taking care of the disadvantaged as a normal moral obligation that impinges on (i) each individual according to their means and (ii) society as a whole. Philanthropy, i.e. the decision by prosperous individuals to devote their wealth to caring for the poor, is naturally a good thing, but it is a step beyond the care for the poor that *every* person is obliged to.

      It may be worth saying, too, that I don't mean that every person who holds capitalist views is cruel to the poor, which is obvious nonsense. I maintain that those views are incorrect, but of course being incorrect is something that happens to most people now and again -- and could be happening to me right now.

    2. I would argue that poverty was actually a built-in structure of Medieval feudalism - near universal human misery, except for a noble few. If this was not the case then why the need for a St. Francis of Assisi? Why a St. Hedwig or Elizabeth of Hungary if charity was so advanced in Medieval Europe? The anarchy you are proposing would seem to want us to undue all of the centuries of progress in standard of living for all, including the poor, aided by classically-enlightened policies and economics in favor of some Romantic ideal that never was and probably never will be. Would near-constant feudal warfare also really be that great? Even now many poor live lives richer than even the wealthiest feudal Lord or king, thanks to industry and yes, capitalism. Our smartphones and tablets would be considered “magic”. Cinderella had pumpkins turn into stagecoaches. We just call an Uber. It’s something to be grateful for.

    3. I didn't mean to imply that the Mediaevals had a great track record on caring for the poor. Probably no age does, though some are surely less bad than others. I do think that the culture of the Middle Ages had a far stronger sense of the obligation to care for the poor than we do; e.g., they would have recognized laws against feeding the homeless as tyrannical and insane, instead of seeing them as normal like we do.

      Regarding anarchy, that isn't really central to this series. (Indeed, it's possible that, as I examine and work out my beliefs more thoroughly, I'll wind up arguing myself out of anarchism; I mean, I don't specifically expect that, but it wouldn't shock me.) However, insofar as we apply anarchist theory to any society, it can only be the society we actually live in; no other is available to us. If the United States were to be generally converted to anarchist views, and therefore to voluntarily break into self-governing communities, all the same history and resources and discoveries and inventions would still be there. We might use them rather differently and think about them differently. But one needn't discard something, merely because one wishes it had come into existence in some other way. Sometimes getting rid of things with imperfect histories can be good, where it sets an example of pure conduct, but it isn't a hard-and-fast rule. I think it's rather like what St Paul says in Romans about eating meat sacrificed to idols: there's nothing wrong with the meat, and it's perfectly licit to eat it, yet choosing not to eat it can be better depending on the circumstances.

      It's true, too, that those accounted poor in our society have, by global and historical standards, fabulous wealth and security. I am glad of that. What I want to do is to help correct what seem to me to be serious flaws that it has -- which isn't at all inconsistent with recognizing its merits and benefits. Indeed, that's just what progress is: keeping the good and fixing the bad.