A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

One Further Example of the Problematic Nature of Rights Language

The chief of the European Union has declared that traveling on vacation is a human right, and that the poor should be subsidized so that they can travel to destinations beyond their own narrow borders (story here). Antonio Tajani, states, "Travelling for tourism today is a right. The way we spend our holidays is a formidable indicator of our quality of life."

My spouse, Carol, and I enjoy traveling. I wish everyone could travel who wants to do so. I remember when I was a young pastor with two young children, making just above the minimum salary and having school loans to pay. Carol and I would travel out of town with our two daughters on vacation every year. We did so because I knew that in my profession if I stayed at home, I would not get a vacation. I did not even think or wish that someone would pay for our vacations out of town. Carol and I saved every month each year for the next year's vacation. In order to do that, we had to go without things during the year. We could not have it all and we did not expect to have it all. We knew that if we were going to get some family time away where we would not be interrupted, we needed to make it a priority. We made it so. We said "no" to other expenditures during the year so we could pack up the van with our daughters and all their "stuff" to make our way down the road to new destinations.

The idea that traveling on vacation is a right and therefore should be subsidized is frankly absurd. But even more significantly it highlights the even greater problem of rights language. Once again, it is revealed what I have said on my blog for some time is true... rights language is more trouble than it is worth and Christians should just jettison it from their moral vocabulary. Rights language by necessity leads to rampant individualism which leads to selfish assertions of what one is owed. In other words, rights language leads to a sense of entitlement.

There are those who would say in response that just because somebody asserts the notion of an absurd right to travel does not mean that all rights language is incorrect. Fair enough... but I continue to challenge those Christians who want to hang on to rights language to give me criteria as to what constitutes a right. Why is one thing a right and not another? I have yet to hear from anyone on this.

I have many intelligent readers of this blog who disagree with me on this. I want to hear from you. How would you respond to this idea that travel is a right and ought to be subsidized by taxpayers? And if you reject the argument of the EU Chief, how do you still continue to argue for the validity of something called "rights?"


Unknown said...

I would differentiate between positive and negative rights. Positive rights are generally absurd.

Positive rights generally assume that you have a claim to someone else's actions or labors, and are thus not really rights (since they infringe on others rights). Examples include a right to a travel, a right to a car, a right to healthcare, a right to any object or service.

Negative rights, however, make more sense. I only have rights to do those things which do not violate others likewise ability. Thus, I have the right to seek and obtain the aforementioned goods and services, but I have no right to force other people to give them to me.

Virtual Methodist said...

Tajani is not EU "chief" but Transport "Commissioner" which in the Byzantine structure of the EU gives him as much power and influence as your average cat... As transport commissioner he is bound to want to talk up travel, especially against a background of rising costs and questions of sustainability. He was appointed by Berlusconi, who still operates on the "bread and circuses" approach of ancient Roman Emperors... throwing scraps to the masses to keep them onside whilst further feathering his own plush nest... so this policy is straight out of this playbook. As for rights... well they are essentially what any legislature say are rights... Whether there are any such things as "Natural rights" well that's another question altogether.

Allan R. Bevere said...

Thanks for the clarification VM. I was not seriously suggesting that such a thing might happen, but it just illustrates for me the problematic nature of rights language.

Anonymous said...

What would Martin Luther King say about rights language in the church? Interesting discussion.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Good question. I think he did what most Christians in modernity do... embrace rights language as what is true. Most Christians in modernity assume there is something called rights.

Of course, Christians certainly could have been advocates for what Dr. King wanted without resorting to rights language. To have done so, however, would have been to argue outside the legal narrative.

Chuck Tackett said...

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness...

A right to live without persecution, a right to speak out against a governing authority, a right to pursue your calling in life, a right to worship. Among others these are critically important because there are many places in the world where the lack of "rights language" means that people are "disappeared", have little hope for their future and are not able to keep much, if anything, of the reward for their labor.

I appreciate the frustration at the absurdity of a right to travel. You're just carrying it to far.

Allan R. Bevere said...

Chuck... all those things you mentioned can be argued for from within a Christian narrative without resorting to rights language. Two questions for you:

How does one determine what a right is?

Where is the notion of rights found in the Bible?

bthomas said...

When it comes to the idea of rights language, one can certainly take it to far. That is how we ended up with nationalized healthcare in the United States.

Country Parson said...

I'm inclined to agree with you Allan. Rights language is very tricky and easily manipulated. Civil rights, are, I suppose, whatever a legitimate civil authority says they are. But human rights? I guess that if they are anything, they are something that we discover within the context of our societies/cultures that define certain core values that we either hold dear or aspire to acheive.

Rev. Daniel McLain Hixon said...


You know what - owning a golden house is a natural, universal, human right! Why?
Because I'm sure I can find a politician (or churchman) who says so.

PamBG said...

I've said before that I think that "rights" - as in the constitution - is a secular, enlightenment way of communicating the idea that God does not hold certain persons to be ontologically superior to others.

I actually think that this is an important idea even if it seems "self evident" to us these days. We still have movements to declare that certain individuals are ontologically superior to others (e.g. complimentarianism) but we disguise these ideas with the "Animal House" tap-dance that everyone is equal but some are more equal than others.

I am in agreement that "the right to travel for tourism" is an absurd statement. I think I like the differentiation of positive and negative rights.

I'm not necessarily wedded to "rights language" though. I think that language is ephemeral but if one wants to be able to communicate to the greatest number of people, one should use language that people understand and not try to redefine words or "take back" concepts.

Chuck Tackett said...

Allan - Sorry not to have responded to your questions above. I got offline soon after posting and was away for the weekend.

I would start by indicating a difference between biblical living and cultural governance. The bible doesn't tell us how to form government any more than it tells us about rights. There are certainly suggestions about living in community in Acts but even that doesn't describe how we should go about it.

We form governments to provide order in society. If you want to ascribe to the notion that government is either not necessary or should be a biblical structure then so be it. My arguments will be of no value to that suggestion and I don't subscribe to that notion.

Accepting the idea that government is necessary, rights become equally necessary to protect individuals from the easy abuse of the power that resides in government. Thus what shapes a right are the fundamental values the society holds to about the nature of humanity.

We need a right to worship because some believe that people should worship in a particular way or not at all. We need a right to free speech and freedom of the press because we must have a public voice to ensure that government is accountable to whom it serves.

Rights are about the relationship between individual and government. They have nothing to do with entitlements and that is where our culture is getting way off track. We seem to equate rights language with our personal desires and they have nothing to do with each other.

People are meant to be free. That can mean many things to different people so it becomes difficult to define clear, objective, black & white rules. Rights require us to examine our conscience, both individually and culturally, to make sure that our government remains in it's role and the individuals are protected from its abuse.

now if you want to talk about the role of government, there's a topic that you could blog about for the rest of your life.

Thanks Allan.