Rights and Institutions

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Matt Kinnaman's latest column argues that the ability to belong to an institution is not a right, and therefore it's not on the same level as what we call civil rights. Slaves were denied rights other people were given by the Constitution. I've argued that Christians have no need to pursue this issue the way they have been, but I think Matt's right on this. I see no constitutional right that should guarantee same-sex marriage (and I think the same is true of abortion, while I'm at it). I don't agree with every sentence in this piece, but I think his general point is correct. We've come to think of lots of things as rights when they really aren't (and now people are even saying that health care is a right).

I'm glad to see Matt's getting his thoughts out there. He ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Congress in 2002 against an incumbent who really doesn't deserve to keep getting re-elected, but it's hard for Republicans to win even in Western MA. Matt was my history teacher in seventh and eighth grade, my youth group leader in high school, and camp director at the camp I went to the summer after I graduated from high school. My brother worked for him as a counselor for a number of years. He was also a philosophy major and the son of a philosophy professor. I look forward to reading more of his columns (he's only got three up at this point).

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Not to be picky, but I don't see in the constitution a guarantee of heterosexual marriage, either. (nor do I see anything either banning or explicitly allowing abortion). I guess there's the large category of 'neutral' (neither explicitly allowed nor prohibited), the deciding of whether they are to be allowed/prohibited should probably be left to the states.

"The ability to belong to an institution is not a right, and therefore it's not on the same level as what we call civil rights".

Take the case of a non-government club or institution that does not permit non-whites to join. Are you saying that no non-whites have the right to join this institution? (presumably you will be arguing that they do not. A defensible but tricky stand if you do.)

But more important to me is the issue of denying its status as "civil rights". The fight to end segregation and "seperate but equal" was called "civil rights", and I think rightly so. But if you are correct, then it was not a civil rights issue at all, it was merely a fight to extend priviledges to those who did not previously hold them--thus not an important or necessary issue.

Mark, I think that was his point. The Constitution itself says nothing about marriage, so it's a little odd to say that marriage is one of our basic constitutional rights, as Andrew Sullivan and others have argued. It may be assumed by many people to be a right, but it's not a constitutional one.

Winky, I think I would say that no one has a moral right to join a club whose membership wants to define itself in a certain way. If it's a long racial lines, I think the people who do it are probably stupid and almost definitely wrong to have such a club, but I don't think anyone has a right to join it. I can form a club of two people with you, for instance. Then if someone else wants to join, we have no obligation to let the person in. How is it different with more people?

It's now been declared unconstitutional by an amendment, so it is a constitutional right. It's been declared a right not to discriminate on a purely racial basis. That amendment says nothing about any other basis, though, including sexual orientation. I guess on that level some people may say that it is parallel to one thing people have called a civil right, but I wouldn't consider that a moral right.

An idiosyncracy on my part with issues like this is that I don't think we have moral rights except insofar as God has rights over us (which was John Locke's view) and insofar as people have moral responsibilities to us (which is a minority view about the relation between rights and responsibilities but I think the correct one).

We violate God's rights by doing bad things to his creation. This includes mistreating the planet he's entrusted us with and mistreating the creatures who occupy it, especially our fellow human beings who are made in his image and thus have even more inherent value than the creatures he entrusted us with (which don't therefore have no value except what we assign them, as some have said, since they have value to God). Since we have moral responsibilities to people, and the government has a responsibility to protect, seek justice, and offer mercy when appropriate, there are some kinds of fairness that it must, out of responsibility, provide.

Yet I think these responsibilities can be a matter of degree. A government can be more or less virtuous with regard to any virture, just as individuals can be. It's humanly impossible to develop one virtue to the fullest without ignoring the other virtues, so we need to seek some balance. The same is true of a government. It can't seek fairness to the exclusion of all other things, including the relative independence of people and the institutions they want to set up. So I don't want to say that marriage is a right in any absolute sense, and I'm not sure there's any clear moral responsibility for a government to disallow racial segregationist organizations, as long as the government isn't behind that group in some way (which is what the law as it stands is -- imagine if a black person tried to join the KKK -- it would be legal for them to prevent it).

This is where my political theory is a little odd. I have this strong libertarian streak in some ways, especially when it comes to allowing people to go off and do their own thing, even preventing others from being involved. I think the KKK should have a legal right to do what they do that doesn't involve other people's property or (including intellectual property and maybe, though I'm not sure, personal space).

Yet I have this strong reaction against libertarianism as gutless unwillingness to stand up for what's right (and not just by individuals, which easily tends to happen, but by the government on clear social justice issues). I think it's a consistent view in the end, but I don't think it fits most people's categories. Maybe I need to write up a post working this all out.

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