THE BLOG

When Rights Become Wrong

02/01/2011 10:34 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I am not a person generally prone to excessive wrath -- or to ranting about the state of Western civilization. Those type of people can be so boring at dinner parties.

But in the aftermath of the Tucson shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords that left six people dead, I have had moments of searing anger -- and utter perplexity.

At the risk of losing Twitter followers and Facebook college pals, I found myself relentlessly posting articles from various sources about weapon studies, the death-grip the NRA has on politicians, and the almost impossible prospects for gun control in our trigger-happy nation.

If I was ruder, or had more courage, I would ask my gun-owning friends: why does their "right" to bear arms outweigh my "right" to feel safe while out eating or shopping or in the public library?

A similar place in the liberal pantheon is occupied by Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision whose 38th anniversary we marked this week that enshrined a woman's right to her own body.

Remember the signs that said "keep your rosaries off my ovaries"? Why is it such a transgression against human rights to ask whether the fetus (or unborn child, take your pick) or heaven forfend, the father of said fetus has any "rights"?

The whole notion of a rights-based philosophy as a guide for governments becomes even more threadbare when applied to the climate change arena, where a developing country can claim, with some justice, that it has the same "right" to pollute as a developed one. As we argue the complexities of that, countries are being flooded and areas that haven't seen white on the ground in years are waking up to snowstorms.

Those of us Christians who espouse a right-based framework that doesn't consider the goals and health of others are, frankly, playing with ideas that certainly would have surprised the early church -- and might have been considered outside the boundaries of orthodoxy.

Where in Paul's letters does he speak of individual happiness? Where does Jesus suggest that, as so many church preachers seem to, that we should focus on crafting better relationships or finding blessings in prosperity?

It is time, past time, that people of faith and secularists united in trying to find another, less ego-based paradigm that looks to a higher good.

In a recent blog post, former Anglican priest and journalist Mark Vernon looked at the philosophy of virtue ethics as a potential way of exploring what it means to be fully human in the wake of the Enlightenment-based ideas that have commanded Western thought over the past three centuries. "The virtue ethics approach is not individualistic. It tells us that to become all we might be as humans we need others," he wrote.

The notion of fostering virtues (habits, skills) to help us become more profoundly human in a technology-compelled, globalized age has some appeal, does it not? But a philosophy that thus far has little traction outside the academy may not fly in an era in which it is so easy to consign ideas with any whiff of community-based consequences to the (horrors) dustbin of socialism. And we all know where that ends up.

Vernon ends his piece by suggesting that the time may be right for another leader, a Socrates, Jesus or Benedict of Nursia, to come along and endow us with the zest to "flourish" again.

But until we can look critically at ourselves and the urgency of the societal and environmental crises we face, we weren't too likely to pay much attention.

So ... how is that obsession with individual rights workin' for us? For you?

You can see why I don't get asked out much.