Here are two cases. First, imagine there’s a farmer (how very quaint) who owns some land, farms it, and claims a right to defend that land in the case that someone comes to take it away, destroy it, or occupy it against his will. Second, imagine a monk, a member of a large religious community, who is charged with taking possession of a monastery in the hills. To his surprise, upon arriving a few weeks ahead of his confreres, he finds the enormous estate unattended, and he presumes to manage it in their absence.
Is it the farmer or the monk who has a right to work the soil? Is it the farmer or the monk who has the right to defend the soil from outside aggressors?
Most would probably say that the farmer is well within his rights to both farm and protect his investment. For the lone monk, things are less clear: he appears to have a responsibility to tend the estate, but not quite a right to do so. On the other hand, he does seem to have a right to defend it from unjust seizure, although perhaps not a responsibility.
Matters are further complicated when we learn that the monk is part of a community that “owns no property” and to whom the estate was lent by a wealthy local businessman. The businessman died, however, just before the lone monk took possession on behalf of his brothers; he had no heirs, and failed to leave a clear will indicating that the land should now lie in the sole use of the monastery.
Nevertheless, the monk still appears to have a right to defend the estate. He might even—now that the facts are clearer—have a right to work the land.
Whatever the case may be, one thing is becoming obvious: the source of “rights” in either case is seemingly very different. For the farmer, a deed indicates that his purchase was valid, and this deed is defensible in court. All of his rights, at bottom, are linked to a public recognition of his having paid for and received the land. For the lone monk, if a right to work the land is present, it arises from his shared participation in the monastic community who, presumably, are “rightful” occupiers of the estate. (Why that’s the case isn’t quite so clear.) When it comes to defending the estate from harm, the single monk’s rights seem even more basic: as far as he knows, there can be no legitimate claimant to the estate apart from the monks, and defending their claim is something to which anyone would have a right. (The question of the degree of force permitted in defending, for both the farmer and the monk, is a separate matter.)
Despite their interesting historical significance, scenarios like these help to break open the enigma of “rights talk” that governs today’s social discussion. Yesterday, Michael Bradley pointed out quite keenly some of the complexities that arise when it comes to pitting rights against one another. More than just failing to appreciate whose “rights” are being violated when it comes to things like abortion and same-sex marriage, we tend—on the whole—to be pretty bad at understanding what the word signifies in general. (If you thought the monk had a right to work the land, despite its being “ownerless,” I’d be curious to hear why. No peeking at possible answers.) The bottom line is that, as Bradley calls it, “the philosophical and cultural matrix in which rights can be intelligibly discussed and even argued about” is much richer than almost anyone will admit. It also includes—which you’ll notice if you do peek at possible answers—an extreme emphasis on sovereignty, and especially the sovereignty of God.
If we pursue all of this to the end, we find that the missing link in rights debates is equal parts theological, philosophical, and linguistic (i.e., dealing with total and irredeemable equivocation). For many, maybe even an increasing number, who believe that the first two collapse into the latter, establishing a sound theory of rights is hopeless. (Remember “Hail Satan!” at the Texas statehouse? Or Noam Chomsky?) For those who take seriously the theological and philosophical components, rights—as Bradley suggests—can make a lot of sense. Unfortunately, equivocation is equivocation (just as irony is irony), and since meaningful language and logic are required to “do” reasoning in the public square, expounding that sense is, as we’ve seen, bound to end up poorly.
On the other hand, perhaps there’s something about the monk’s situation that speaks to us in a way that titles, deeds, and ownership cannot. While it’s easy to write this off as mere sentimentalism, it’s nevertheless a sentiment linked to a social vision, which takes as a foundation more than the mere juxtaposition of ownership claims. At bottom, there are solid philosophical reasons underlying the monk’s claims to defend and manage the estate. However, they’re philosophical reasons that are part of a much broader set of claims than we’re accustomed, as a society, to accept—claims that influence in deep ways the first principles of any discussion about practical human relationships.