How to think theologically about rights – Stanley Hauerwas

It is quite an overwhelming experience reading the biography and list of Hauerwas’ works. Mostly because it reads like a celebrity’s rather than a theologian’s. I have heard the hype around Hauerwas; how he has been labelled ‘America’s Best Theologian’, holds some prestigious titles and won prestigious scholarships. I have also made a pitiful start of reading his A Community of Character – a book that is, apparently, in the top 100 most important books on religion in the 20th century. Look him up for yourself. It doesn’t take long to see that Stanely Hauerwas is ‘big-wig’ in this type of scholarship.

However, if you watch his interviews, he does seem like a person who has not really strived for his success and accolades. Not to say that his writing, or reading is equal to zero effort – but just that he appears to be a man that lives and breathes the profound. Whose mind is constantly wired in the abstract, the nuanced, and the critical. A man who would have been thinking and writing about these things regardless of where it took him in his career.

An interesting man that will probably take a fair bit of time to unravel and understand. I hope to get to know him through his writings over the years. If your interest has also been piqued somewhat, have a look here:
What I like about this list is that he also includes his own recommendations for reading.

The following excerpts are from an article that he wrote for the Journal of Law and Religion in 2015. It touches on a topic that has been nagging at my intellect for a while. It does appear, in some ways, ‘blasphemous’ for a person to disagree with human rights, and even down right contradictory for a Christian to speak out against our modern day standards of elite ethics and virtue. In this article, Hauerwas comically relays this sentiment and states, “I take it to be a mark of our times that a theologian may have worries about whether God exists, but we cannot call into question the status of rights”. He goes on to offer an important counter-rhetoric to how we, as Christians, should be questioning rights, and more specifically, ‘rights language’. By using the works of Simone Weil and Rowan Williams, Hauerwas attempts to provide a way to interact with rights language, without having to necessarily prescribe to the narrative of its ultimate, end-goal importance.

It has made me further question how rights language is not used in the Bible. How Jesus did not come stirring up people’s entitlement to certain rights in order for people’s inherent value to be shown, but rather, in order to do so, he gave up everything he had, including his life.

It has also reminded me of the work of Martti Koskeniemmi, who focuses on international human rights law as a language, and the power and limitations of that language. Unfortunately, I will have to brush up on my research to give you more detail, but I do remember his work leading me to affirm the belief that rights, and especially when looked at as merely a language, are just a means to an end. They are not our overall goal. This is correlative to Hauerwas’ belief that rights should merely serve as a tool to harbour “thick moral relationships” between one another. He argues that they should serves as reminders or these relationships, and cannot be “mistakenly assumed to be more basic” than virtues, such as kindness.

Perhaps the language of rights does further propel the notion of entitlement.

I know I may have stirred up some questions, so please read on, for Hauerwas has done this topic much more justice than what I could here at this time.

Hauerwas, Stanley ‘How to think theologically about rights’ (2015) 3 Journal of Law and Religion 402-413.

  • I argue that my primary concern is not to discount the usefulness of rights language in contemporary expressions of legal and moral duties. Rather my concern is with the over reliance on rights language such that it guards a society from acknowledging prior claims to a common good. Rights language has become too powerful when appeals to rights threaten to replace first-order moral descriptions in a manner that makes us less able to make the moral discriminations that we depend upon to be morally wise.

What is right about rights

  • “claims to rights express the hope that something like a human community exists, making possible declarations that all people deserve to have their dignity recognised. From a theological perspective, rights so understood can be regarded as an expression of the Christian eschatological hope that all people are to be ultimately united in the common worship of God.
  • [John] Milbank acknowledges that one can understand how in the face of utilitarian suppression of human freedom and the brutal treatment of certain classes of human beings, human dignity and human rights were thought to be mutually implicated when in fact the represent two fundamentally opposed traditions of political and ethical thought. Human rights are correlative of the liberal political tradition embodied in the American Constitution, whereas human dignity derives largely from the Catholic tradition.
  • …my primary purpose in this essay is to provide a more modest defines of right making claims that can sustain the moral commitments associated with the acknowledgment of our mutual humanity.
  • I call attention to Reed’s identification of me as a critic of rights language because I assume many regard me as a representative of those most modern of atheists, namely, those who do not believe in rights. I take it to be a more of our times that a theologian may have worries whether God exists, but we cannot call into question that status of rights. For as Reed suggests, the language of rights came into its own after World War II in response to the absence of any unifying political ideologies or religious belief systems necessary to bind the majority of individuals together. Rights are, therefore, as I suggested above, regarded as a source of ethical and political value that was an is capable of binding people together without violence. The language of rights became and remains the language of the high humanism many think necessary to sustain moral peace in a fragmented world. To be a critic of rights, therefore, is close to putting oneself on the side of terrorism.
  • If we do not have the language of rights we might, it seems, lack the necessary moral presuppositions for the condemnation of torture.
  • I do have my reservations, which interestingly enough involve how one thinks about torture. I will develop my worries below, but I can put the matter succinctly: if you need a theory of rights to know what torture is, or if you think you need rights to ground your judgement that torture is morally wrong, then something has clearly gone wrong with you moral sensibilities.
  • Indeed I assume the law is rightly regarded as the source and proper context for claims of rights because the law expresses well-established social and political expectations.
  • …my primary concern is that rights language has become too powerful. By that I mean that appeals to rights threaten to replace first-order moral descriptions in a manner that makes us less able to make the moral discriminations that we depend upon to be morally wise…
    • So what follows is a broadside critique of what I can only regard as the over dependence on rights language in our culture.

What is wrong about rights 

  • [Hauerwas tells a story about a spokesperson for the Department of Justice, after several civil rights workers had been killed during a campaign in Mississippi]. The spokesperson for the Department of Justice was appropriately outraged. But in order to express his outrage he resorted to the moral vocabulary in which I assume he most felt at home. He said that this who had been killed had had their rights violated. When rights become a more basic moral description than murder, you have an indication that your language has gone on a holiday.
  • Of course one cannot help but have some sympathy for the Department of Justice representative. He was using the most powerful language he knew to indicate what a horrible moral crime had been committed. Yet the very appeal to the violation of rights as the fundamental moral description may indicate a profound worry in such a morality. For if confidence in the language of rights is lost it is not clear what the alternative to nihilism would be.
     I worry, therefore, that for no doubt many reasons some are trying to make the language of rights do more work than it can do.
  • Not unrelated to the overdetermination of rights language in our current moral vocabulary is my worry that once the language of inalienable rights is introduced there is no way to control their multiplication. 
    • The moral life conceived primarily in terms of rights turns out to produce people who end up shouting at one another by claiming that their rights have been violated.
  • Finally I worry that the language of rights has not been thought through theologically. In particular it is not clear what the implication of the language of rights has for our relationship to God. Rights seem to suggest we may well have a standing over against God that betrays what it may mean to be a creature.
  • There is no question that claims about human rights has served to challenge forms of human oppression. David Gushee is surely right to suggest that Christians should celebrate recent advances in international human rights law in which the “smallest” individual ha been given protection form the “greatest” ruler. Yet even that achievement is not without problems because it is not clear that a claim to have a right makes sense without a mechanism that can enforce that claim.

Simone Weil on rights 

  • …something is amiss with the vocabulary of personalism just to the extent that what is sacred in each of us is not our personhood, but that we are who we are and not someone else. What makes us and others sacred is not our human personalities, but everything about us, the whole of us, our arms, our thoughts, our eyes.
  • [Quoting Simone Weil, Selected Essays: 1934-1943] If you say to someone who has ears to hear: “what you are doing to me is no just,” you may touch and awaken at its source the spirit of attention and love. But it is not the same with words like “I have the right…” or ‘you have no right to …” They invoke latent war and awaken the spirit of contention. To place the notion of rights at the centre of social conflicts is to inhibit any possible impulse of charity of both sides.
        Relying almost exclusively on this notion, it becomes impossible to keep one’s eye on the real problem.
  • [commenting on Weil’s use of a young girl being forced into a brothel as an example] It is not, Weil argues, her personality that is being violated but her very being.
  • Weil expands her remarks about the “personal” by suggesting that to add the language of “personal” to qualfy rights only makes the cry of the oppressed even meaner than bargaining. It does so because it inflects the call of justice with the tone of envy. She observes that “to the dimmed understanding of our age” the claim that all should gave an equal share of privilege does not seem odd. yet the claim is both absurd and base, absurd because privilege is by definition a matter of inequality, and base because what is claimed to be worth having is not worth having. In fact, the kids of people who formulate such claims are in a privileged position., which makes them presume they have a monopoly on the language of rights. They are the last people, therefore, who should say that privilege is unworthy to be desired.
  • Weil is no defender of injustice… But she argued that to putin the mouth of the afflicted words she described as coming from the “vocabulary of middle values,” words such as “democracy”, rights,” and “personality,” is to offer the afflicted that which can bring them no good and will inevitably do them much harm. It is the language of truth, beauty, justice, and compassion they need – not the language of rights.
  • Rights are coloured with the tone of contention. Such a tone, however, if it is to be serious, must rely on force if a claim to rights is not to be laughed at. That right depend on force is but a reminder that right are originally the creation of the Romans and, in particular, Roman property owners.
  • Weil is not denying that rights have some moral standing. Rather her worry is that rights, which she identifies as being launched int o the world in 1789. have proved unable to fulfil the role assigned to them. They have been unable to secure the sacredness of each human being.
  • What I find so compelling about Weil’s understanding of rights is her refusal to turn rights into abstractions. The language of rights has its place, but that place requires the display of thick human relationships… “the notion of obligations comes before that of rights”. Obligations come before rights because for a right to be effectual it cannot spring from the individual who possesses it. Rather the efficacy of a right depends on other people who consider themselves to be under certain obligations toward the one who claims the right.
  • [The revolutionaries of 1789] failed to see the contradiction entailed by their asserting their rights and yet at the same time wanting to postulate absolute principles. In effect they confused that which is eternal and unconditioned with that which is conditioned by facts. From Weil’s perspective we have been paying the moral and political price for that confusion by trying to make rights do more than they are able to do.
  • For Weil, respect for another human being cannot be grounded in rights, but rather is a reflection of the obligations that make us human… Such an obligations no foundation, but is verified in the common consent found in our behaviour toward one another. 

Rights as the expression of our need for bodily communication 

  • I have, I should like to think, a weighty ally in support of that claim [talking about Weil’s claim about the importance of the body for disciplining the language of rights], namely, Rowan Williams, who has argued in a manner quite similar to Weil that because our bodies are not reducible to being an object among other objects, due regard for the body is foundational for our recognition of the right of others.
  • Williams developed this understanding of rights in response to MacIntyre’s claim in After Virtue that human rights, like unicorns, simply do not exist. Williams thinks MacIntyre is surely right that the standoff between rights and utility in our culture has resulted in a managerial account of political life in which “experts” are now given authority in a manner that inhibits the arguments we need to have to discover the goods in common. But Williams does not think that means all rights-talk is to be left behind exactly because rights is now one of the resources we have for challenging the assumption that the modern state can do what it pleases.
  • Williams calls attention to the uneasy relationship of Christians with slavery. Slavery was not condemned in scripture, and the early church obviously included in the ranks of the church slaveowners as well as slaves. But the relationship between the slaveowner and the same, Williams observes, was complicated by baptism. Because of baptism Christians could not view their bodies or the bodies of their fellow Christians as “property”. Indeed the body became the medium of meaning. For what it means for us to have a soul is that the body is “the medium in which the conscious subject communicates, and there is no communication without it”.
  • I call attention to the similarity between Williams and [Herbert] McCabe because both insist that the body is not an instrument of communication, but rather the human body is intrinsically communicative.
  • That the body as a human body is  a system of communication that is by no means rational or even verbal, Williams argues, is basic for why we should want to speak of rights at all. For constitutive of the routine act of communication is the doctrine of our shared obedience to Christ based in our bodily nature. That doctrine affirms that the body of every person is related to its maker and saviour before it is related to any human system of power. Accordingly, we have an identity that cannot be taken over by any other person’s will.
  • Williams, therefore, maintains that if he is right about the communicative character our embodiment then it is the inviolability of the body that is the basis for think about rights. Rights do not belong to the person who has rational capacity, but rather rights can be attributed to any organism that can be recognised as a human body. This view of the body, moreover, draws on the Christina presumption that as a communicative being a bearer of a message cannot be silenced.
  • The language of rights is not a language that lends itself to resolution in purely secular terms. For in secular terms the language of rights cannot help but because a supreme and non contestable concept that overwhelms the concepts we need for communication… Williams argues that there comes a point when argument comes to an end and we recognise that a level has been reached that is basic if we are to think at all. To speak of non-negotiable rights is the attempt to say that we have not chosen these commitments but rather they make out very ability to speak to one another possible.
  • For Williams, the language of human rights becomes confused and possibly dangerous when it is divorced from the question of belonging and recognition. 

Final Confession of a rights atheist 

  • Rights, I think, are best understood as reminder claims to help us remember the thick moral relationships our bodies make possible and necessary. I am, therefore, quite sympathetic with what John McGown characterises as a pragmatist account of rights…
    • McGowan worries that appeals to rights by conservatives as well as liberals too often result in a “rights inflation” that is used by conservatives to clock social reforms or by liberals to increase the power of the state. Yet he think, “for better or worse,” we are stuck with the language of rights, which at best can indicate the permanent tension between claim soft individuality and claims of the collective. What must be avoided, from McGowan’s perspective, is any attempt to provide epistemological foundational justification of rights that avoids the political processes necessary to keeping rights in their place.
  • McGowan suggests we best think of human rights in practice like a language. Rights emerge as a means of communication as we seek to co-ordinate action and establish relationships… As a result, however, we should not expect rights to be the same in every society and politics. Rights necessarily reflect a people’s understanding of what constitutes a full and desirable human life.
  • Like McGowan, I do not think… that the language of rights needs to be justified or grounded in some transcendental way. In particular, I do not think they need to be justified theologically… That would only be the case if rights are mistakenly assumed to be more basic than the kindness that should be constituent of the virtue of charity. The question is not: Can a Christian appeal to rights? Rather the question is whether our moral vocabulary is in good enough condition that such an appeal does not threaten to determine all we have to say. And that is all I have to say about rights. 

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