In the western world we talk a great deal of Rights. Individual Human Rights are foundational to the US Constitution which calls on God as underwriter for them. In all the talk of rights, liberty, license, and freedom the meaning gets lost and we start to lose the forest for the trees. Ironically, inherent in the the term liberty is the state of liberation and you can’t be liberated without having once been bound. In each of these terms there is a similar link to a binary state, a juxtaposition of polar opposites.
The state of holding or exercising a right is righteousness, and that is a term that many in the secular world shy away from. It’s natural they should given the alternate is unrighteousness and there is a specific moral, ethical, and religious component to these concepts. What is a right? A right is a just claim or title, whether legal, prescriptive, or moral (Dictionary.com). But ultimately it is justification or intitlement to act in accordance with one’s own will or desire, without legitimate recrimination or consequence from a governing authority.
With all the talk of liberty and justification in the Christian scripture one might well begin to lose sight of the meaning of right. It’s easy to start differentiating between Human RIghts in the political context and righteousness before God.
Recently a comment on Twitter struck me with this dissociative dichotomy. The statement was to the effect that certain persons, because of their sexual and identity issues should be left to decide for themselves how they should feel, how they should be addressed, and what entitlements they should possess. And indeed the Tweet used the term Right to lend weight to the argument. In particular I was struck by the statement, “They have … the right … to the pronouns.”
Even for a Christian or Jew who finds the gender and sexual assertions self-destructive and dangerously sinful, the first inclination is to say, “sure, they have the right but not the entitlement.” And this more than anything shows both the lack in Euro-centric language and the cognitive break in western thought. But this gets tricky when the right to a pronoun, impedes the right for a speaker to express himself or herself freely.
A right is entitlement. Righteousness is the exercise of rights within the general framework of obedience. Liberty, means freedom. License means permission. And ultimately Western Thinking finds it hard to conceive of a state where a person is not entitled, but still able to act with some degree of impunity, yet no malice. This is the crux in fact. The terms for acting without license or right are generally negative and imply emotional inherent malice. The underlying idea is that when you disobey it must be intentional and malicious, or ignorant. There is a presumption of honor that makes it seem impossible for a moral agent to disobey without defiance or lack of knowledge.
But what of the person who simply, and casually fails to recognize that authority. We all know that gravity causes objects to fall with great consistency. Disbelief in gravity is something that one is freely able to express and hold dear. But if one acts on that disbelief by attempting to float over a drop of any given height, one will surely fall, disbelief not withstanding. opinion and belief play no part in it whatsoever. What can be said of the gravity skeptic? Does this person have the right to disbelieve? The kneejerk answer is a resounding yes. But this necessarily implies that they are inherently right. That disbelief excepts them from gravity. They have the right to simply float, or drift off gently into space as the earth and moon wander on without them. It’s their right.
This is silly. instead of being right (or righteous) the gravity skeptic is oblivious to the incontrovertible reality we all share. No amount of disbelief, however earnest, can make make gravity cease. And oblivion is the operative word. The proper parallel to a right is an oblivion. When a person receives instruction in how to behave and act, such as job training, that person has an obligation to the authority giving instruction. In this case, the employer may choose not to micromanage and instead leave the employee to act as conscience dictates. The employee has the oblivion to act in concert with training and accomplish the required tasks, or to do what pleases and fail utterly in the job. When the lax employer returns to assess the work, the faithful employee who obeys the job description keeps the job and gets paid. The failed, self-indulgent employee loses income and employment.
Both had the same oblivion to behave as they chose. Neither had the right.