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V. Moral Rights, Duties, and Values

ALL CIVIC cooperation is based on the recognition of the need of order in human life. But morality is founded on the further recognition that each man must allow for the freedom of others, must grant to others the "rights" which he so readily claims for himself, or--in the terms of the universal moral law--must "do to others" as he would that men should do unto him (Luke vi. 31).

We cannot conceive of morality existing under an "absolute" autocracy. For Human Freedom would be a meaningless phrase unless it implied a common recognition that the individual man has certain definite "rights". Since an "absolute" democracy which should claim that the rights of all individuals were equal, would similarly be irreconcilable with the moral point of view, it is clear that we cannot separate the idea of human "rights" from the concept of human "freedom".

Into the great Charter of the United States this moral concept enters, when life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are held up to be the "unalienable rights" of man. In so far as any rights can be said to be unalienable these must be so recognized.

It is notable, however, that nothing is mentioned in the Writings of the New Church about human "rights". Human "faculties" or "powers", yes! Prerogatives which men have above beasts (SD 3820), yes! But no intrinsic human rights! Among the angels, we are told, there is no thought about prerogatives or privileges. (SD 2935, 2516.) This silence about man's rights is eloquent. We interpret it to mean that man, as an individual, possesses no intrinsic right merely by virtue of the fact that he is human. Whatever rights are vested in him, belong to him not as a person, but as a use. This, no doubt, is the reason why, in the spiritual world, no food is given to the slothful.

Whatever "rights" we seem to possess, then, are properly the rights of the use or the place we fill in society. Therefore society gives us our rights and privileges, according to the functions we perform. And those rights cannot be the same for all, nor can they be unlimited. They are constantly being re-defined, and controlled by society. This is a tangible and sometimes a painful fact. It is so with individuals, with institutions and corporations, with cities, even with nations ! If the use we perform is not valued by society, our freedom is retrenched, our supposed rights infringed upon.

And society, being composed of men, may be in error in not valuing our contributions more highly. Yet this social control is on the whole fortunate. It creates a balance, provides a check upon those who insist upon their rights to the embarrassment of others. If we were to insist that our rights were self-derived, intrinsic, and absolute, anarchy would arise, and in its wake persons or groups would enforce private monopolies which would enslave mankind in one manner or another.

After all, it is society which gives protection and opportunity to the individual, and enables him to perform "uses" and to reap their rewards. To claim that society cannot limit the opportunities which it gave in the first instance, is hardly compatible with sound reason. But it is true that society has no Divine rights, intrinsic in itself. It is the administrator of its use, and comes under the same law as the individual. It cannot evade its responsibilities. When it acts unjustly, its very right to exist is challenged, and a judgment awaits it.

It is very essential to recognize that human rights are not intrinsic, but are "assured" to others by a consensus of opinion. Still it is necessary, in practical life, to think of the essential needs which others have for performing their uses in the world, as "their proper rights".

The Ten Commandments thus contain concise statements of all the moral rights of man. In the fourth of these precepts, the basic rights of society are proclaimed in the simplest possible form, when it is said: "Honor thy father and thy mother!" There must be a positive acknowledgment of indebtedness to society, both spiritual and natural, before there can be any motive for shunning the evils which society detests; or before the rights of the neighbor can be considered.

A man's right to life and limb, to physical safety, to health and protection, are next noted, in the words, "Thou shalt not kill".

His right to mate, to establish a home and to have children, are implied very clearly, by the precept, "Thou shalt not commit adultery".

His right to own property is vouchsafed to him by the law against theft.

His right to protection against defamation or unjust accusation is shown in the precept against "false witness".

The two last precepts--the ninth and the tenth--give, not his moral rights to civil protection, but his moral right to moral protection: "Thou shalt not covet" implies a recognition in heart of the neighbor's right to moral freedom, his right to be different.

The human rights with which morality is concerned, may be considered as falling also into two planes of life. There are physical rights, and there are mental rights.

The Physical Rights of an individual--rights to life and limb, to exemption from assault, to free movement are protected since olden days by the provision in law of an act of "habeas corpus". But in morals it is of wider significance, forbidding us to do anything that risks accident to others, imposes cruelties, or prevents others from leading a wholesome life. Morality rebelled against slavery. It rebels against any industrial conditions wherein profit is made at the expense of human life or human safety. (From the moral viewpoint, the use of an industry is not profit, but service. Use is indeed above man, and if use calls for sacrifice even of life, it is noble to respond to that call. But profit is not a use in itself; wherefore the Writings call such business as is carried on merely for profit, "Jewish trading".) The Writings clearly allow to the State a legitimate right to limit the individual's right to protection, or physical life. Imprisonment and even the death-penalty are thus not condemned in the Doctrine.

The neighbor has also Mental Rights which must be considered. Excessive, gruelling, or debasing labor grinds down man's character and produces a mental stagnation which negates his opportunities to develop in truly human directions. Utter idleness also tends to produce degeneration in the mind's poise and power. Too great luxury and lack of responsibilities have similar effects. So far as it depends on us, we must therefore not encourage such conditions with those who come under our proper authority.

Children have a right to a proper education, for this looks to a future use intelligently performed. Denial of a right to some kind of education is thus in itself immoral. In the New Church, the right of the child to instruction in worship and doctrine is implied in the baptismal act.

Mental rights are largely associated with that freedom of thought and speech and press and religion and education, which is ever the bulwark of progress. Such liberty is also recognized as a guarantee against disorderly rebellions: for it shows that the ordering of the State is in the hands of those who can persuade acceptance of their ideas and support for their plans.

Actually, such freedom is founded on Tolerance--on the perception, ingrained in a people, that men must have the right to differ in thought and sympathy. Therefore we see in the rights of minorities a visible proof of the measure of liberty which a nation offers, and an indication of its moral opinion.

No human rights can be formulated which are devoid of exceptional features. Supposing that some religion believed in human sacrifice, it could not claim a place in our commonwealth, since it transgressed a fundamental moral precept. Similarly, while speech is free in our country, there is a law against libelous remarks. This law is for the sake of moral freedom and is not directed against it. For moral freedom implies the right to a certain privacy, which indeed is respected by all moral men. And similarly every society has its rights to protect itself by rules against the abuse of freedom of speech and act.

Human rights are not the same for any two people. Rights pertain to uses; they are not lodged in the individual. A use well done is like a mantle of protection which falls upon a person and makes him valuable in the eyes of society, causes him, indeed, to be associated into the invisible structure of function which is called the Grand Man. As long as man is as to use a part of that organism, he has rights. Even a child, if he acts like a child, is protected because of the embryonic use which he represents. "Woman's Rights", so much spoken of some years ago, are, properly speaking, the rights which are gained by her performance of those uses for which Woman stands: and those feminine rights are on that account quite different from man's rights in many respects.

The Sense of Duty

It is clear, therefore, that a person's rights are evenly proportioned to his uses; or, conversely, that every right carries with it a responsibility. The moral sense is never devoid of this feeling of obligation, or the sense of Duty.

The sense of duty--like all moral ideas-originates in the rational mind. A contemporary writes, "Any person who is capable of putting before himself an idea as a motive of conduct, who is capable of forming a conception of something he must realize, is by that very fact conscious of a sense of obligation." This sense of duty is so outstanding a fact of human nature, that one philosopher even goes so far as to call it a "categorical imperative"--meaning an unqualified, absolute, commanding condition of the rational mind. Swedenborg shows that the very fact that the understanding or reason of man can entertain the idea of what is right and true, places man in freedom to will the truth, if he chooses to will it. But man is still free not to carry out his sense of duty! The rational mind is simply able, temporarily, to assume a heavenly order which invites the influx of the heavens--an influx of power to will according to that order. And this will can then proceed gradually to pave the way for its own realization, by curbing the appetites and desires of the external man. It is so that every use is fostered. Moral progress is never possible except by entering the strait gate and the narrow way--the way of self-control, of discipline, of arduous labor. Sometimes, indeed, our duty lies along the way of natural impulse, natural ability. But impulse and pleasure are very unsafe guides to point out the way of duty! It is impossible to attain accomplishment in any profession, if one merely relies on native ability and not on hard work. Think of the arduous exercises and training that the expert pianist or the expert linguist laid as a foundation for his art or use.

The consoling fact is that the love of an end begets a love of the means. Time sped fast for Jacob while he served seven years for his Rachel. The end-in-view happily sheds its prophetic glory over the hard tasks. The sense of duty, once conceived and accepted, will normally remain and will lend so new a meaning to life that no man can turn his back upon it without a feeling of having committed a treason to himself as well as to society.

To accept responsibility is thus the essence of a moral life. With a spiritual man, this means responsibility to the Lord, the Creator and Redeemer. With others, it means at least a responsibility towards that network of social uses which are maintained for the sake of mankind's welfare and progress. It means a responsibility towards the rights of one's fellowmen, in their uses and functions.

It may seem a very simple thing--this Duty. But in practice, the "rights" of one use are modified by the demands of every other. We have ourselves so many uses. All cannot receive equal attention, or deserve an equal part of our time, energy and support. A man may be a husband, a father, an employer, a businessman, a church-member, and a citizen--all at the same time. His duties are thus complicated and his moral sense is called upon to discriminate between all these obligations, so as to serve them adequately. The Writings therefore point out that in all moral virtues "justice and judgment must dominate; justice is of moral wisdom, and judgment is of rational wisdom" (CL 164).

The Writings here refer to the fact that there are degrees of value in uses.

Moral Values

Students of ethics have always realized that moral judgment means choosing the best. It has always been seen that a person may value even material things in various ways. We are often faced with a choice between an immediate material yield or a longtime investment of money, time, or labor, which has a greater "survival-value" or has the advantage of eventually producing greater good. In our personal life, we can follow a higher rational principle, or we can let our lower, irrational elements--the cupidities--usurp the leadership and in consequence bring us into moral disorder. In social relations, we can act selfishly or we can at times act with self-sacrifice for the sake of the wider interests of society.

The moral choice, in each case, seeks the greater good. And thus it is of need to know whether we can, at all times, determine what is the greatest good.

This was attempted by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), a utilitarian moralist who took Pleasure as the end of every action, and believed that we might in a manner determine moral values by measuring the quantity of pain or pleasure in a proposed act by a sort of calculus. To illustrate, let us consider whether we should take a child to a certain motion-picture exhibition. We should then ask ourselves:

  1. What will be the intensity of pleasure to the child?
  2. What will be the duration of this pleasure?
  3. Is it certain to give enjoyment?
  4. Will this be immediate or delayed?
  5. Would it promote more pleasure, or tend to future dissatisfaction ?
  6. How purely pleasurable would it be?
  7. How many people would gain pleasure thereby?

These questions might indeed be useful in assisting us to determine the moral value of an act. But they are far from adequate, especially since pleasure is not the real end in life. The last of his questions he felt to be the specific thing that a political State should consider for government was to provide "the greatest good for the greatest number". This phrase, which has been adopted since then by every political orator, is very persuasive. Yet the New Churchman is not alone in realizing that no mere multiplication can convert a material good into a moral or, still less, into a spiritual use! Other moralists have therefore tried to add a question as to quality: "What is the quality of the pleasure to be derived?" But the system breaks down in spite of this, because of the lack among men of any definite knowledge of discrete degrees.

The New Churchman then comes back for enlightenment to the doctrine concerning Charity. This doctrine indeed allows that there are on every plane degrees of greater or less good, between which a wise choice must be made. Thus ten dollars is better than one dollar. But any amount of dollars should mean nothing whatsoever in a question of honesty, friendship, love. For the latter things are of discretely higher values.

The doctrine of Charity prescribes that the neighbor who is to be loved is to be conceived not only as an individual man, but also as a man in the collective sense, or as human society, greater or lesser (HD 91). A society is more a neighbor than an individual, our country is more a neighbor than a society or group, the church is more the neighbor than the country, and the kingdom of the Lord a neighbor in a still higher degree. "What is prior or superior is to be preferred to what is posterior or inferior" (HD 96).

This law, evidently, cannot be interpreted as a mere application of the multiplication table. It implies something more than the principle of "the greatest good for the greatest number". Indeed we find here discrete degrees of good in successive order, a society standing for civic and social good, the country for moral good, the church for spiritual good and the Lord's kingdom for celestial good.

The real neighbor is not the person, but the use, or the good; and the distinct statement is therefore made elsewhere that "a society, smaller or larger, is the neighbor according to the good of its use". "One's country is the neighbor according to its good, spiritual, moral, and civil," and a foreign country according to the good of its religion, and according to the good that it performs to one's own country and to itself.

The moral values of any act are thus quite complex, and cannot be calculated in the manner that Bentham suggested. Indeed life would lose its meaning, its variety, its beauty, if all moral issues were so definite that all could see them the same.

The Doctrine thus indicates that we must strive to distinguish between spiritual, moral, and civil uses or goods. A New Churchman cannot--as I interpret the teaching in the posthumous work on Charity (n. 86) love his country (as it now is) because of its moral and civil good, so far as this depends for existence upon its spiritual good. But so far as it does not depend upon this, he can, even if his country hates him. He must, with this in view, love it and consult its good so far as it is good for it, not consulting it in such a way that he confirms it in its falsity and evil.

Perhaps a hopeless feeling comes over us when we thus find that while each degree of the neighbor must be considered in its order of importance, yet an individual's spiritual good is even more important than a whole society's natural welfare. Yet there is, we are sure, no actual conflict here. In the Lord's government, the natural welfare of the world is never so much endangered as by spiritual evil. No country is ever harmed by our struggle for high moral ideals. Let us by all means "give unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's"--civil obedience, willing cooperation in the duties of citizenship; yet in every act let us also "render unto God the things which are God's".

Since both spiritual and moral considerations thus cut across every discrete degree of neighbor and make every proposed act an intricate complex so that we can never be completely satisfied that we actually recognize all the moral values involved, it is clear that we cannot estimate the moral character of anyone (not even of one's self) merely by his success in seeing such values; although we realize that such good judgment is a sign of real rational wisdom. But we are willing to condone a mistaken judgment of values, when we take into account the moral virtues, the point of view, the attitude, the subjective state of the person who acts.


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