We live in a rights-obsessed society. This pathology is not surprising in a culture where love for self prevails over love for neighbour, what sociologist Christopher Lasch calls a culture of narcissism.
The result? Little thought is given to our responsibilities to one another and what is mutually beneficial. Others are viewed only as spectators or means to fill narcissistic demands.
The irony is that a rights claim requires others to accept responsibility to fulfil the claim. Any rights claim must be balanced with competing claims in a manner that respects principles of justice and is consistent with living in a diverse, free and democratic society.
Rights and responsibilities require balance. A healthy democracy requires mutual responsibility, otherwise we become the enabler of the narcissist who advances entitlement.
Entitlement breeds quarrels that remain unresolvable (James 4:1–2). In narcissistic thinking there can be no dialogue, only personal victory. In our narcissistic society, amplified in cyberspace, rights become idols – systems of mastery of one over the other.
A rights claim can seek a balance of rights and responsibilities, but it can also be a veiled attempt to assert a narcissistic understanding of human flourishing. These are matters of ontology and anthropology, and are legitimate to advance. However, our Charter of Rights and Freedoms is not designed to determine which vision should prevail.
Just because something is not illegal does not make it a right.
Our courts appeal to Charter values as a moral framework to interpret the Charter, but the Charter does not identify these values, leading to differing interpretations. This is why many lower court decisions involving the Charter are appealed and why not all Supreme Court decisions are unanimous.
Some rights claims are actually attempts to shape Charter values. This is evident when people contend an absence of a law (or an exemption from a law) generates a right. Just because something is not illegal does not make it a right.
Rights claims are sometimes brought to the Supreme Court of Canada to attempt to shape Charter values, which are not identified in the Charter.
For example abortion was a criminal offence in Canada because it was accepted that the state had an interest in protecting unborn children. There was an exemption if the life and health of the mother was at risk.
However the courts found some of the conditions of the exemption to be unreasonable and inconsistently applied, so they struck down the law. The court did not say Parliament had to abandon its legitimate interest in and responsibility to the unborn child. The expectation was Parliament would redesign the exemption. But those decades ago it abandoned the unborn.
In the legislative vacuum since then some assert a right to abortion. This attempts to normalize the idea that neither the state nor society has an interest in protecting unborn children. This is not a matter of balancing rights and responsibilities, it is the refutation of any responsibility.
Nearly all countries restrict abortion. But in Canada any such talk is shouted down because it challenges the narcissistic claim of unchallenged individual sovereignty and autonomy.
The Supreme Court did not declare assisted suicide to be a right. It remains a criminal offence. The court ruled that in limited circumstances persons asked by another for help in committing suicide should not be subject to criminal sanction. The court did not say it must become standard medical treatment.
Yet here again the claim "my body, my choice" presses against any notion of societal norms or interests which might constrain individual choices and challenge personal sovereignty for the sake of others.
Likewise in debates over the regulation of prostitution – is it inherently exploitative and a threat to society as well as individuals? Or does individual autonomy trump these concerns?
The narcissistic pursuit of individual autonomy rejects any responsibility for engaging in a mutually responsible way toward others – unborn or born. Underneath some claims to rights is an attempt to entrench a notion of human flourishing focused on my human autonomy.
Our task is to promote societal norms that advance the sanctity and dignity of all human life. These norms are the basis of rights conjoined in responsibilities. Our advocacy must always continue to demonstrate love for others – made in God’s image, worthy of protection and care, and deserving of opportunities to flourish.
Author: Bruce J. Clemenger