One of Pope Benedict XVI’s great emphases in his new social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, is the idea of gift. A gift is something that we have received without earning. As the Pope wisely notes, “The human being is made for gift,” even though man is often “wrongly convinced that he is the sole author of himself, his life and society.”
The truth is that we are not the authors of our own lives. We did not earn or create the conditions that make our lives what they are. We did not merit our genetic code, and we are not worthy of the parents that we had growing up. Neither do we have ourselves to thank for our societies and the opportunities that they hold. To some degree, hard work, creativity, and self-cultivation can enable us to better ourselves and our lives. That this is even the case is not because of our own efforts, though. We are not the reason that merit can lead to success.
We live lives gifted to us in a world gifted to us by God. God is not random, and He has reasons for giving each of us the gifts that He has. We do not by any means know what those reasons are much of the time, but we can use our reason to search for them. Reason shows us that we as humans are social beings, meant to live in coexistence with one another and to seek the common good and the wellbeing of everyone. The gift of our lives and our own particular gifts are meant to benefit the whole of humanity and not just ourselves. As Caritas in Veritate puts it, gift “takes first place in our souls as a sign of God’s presence in us, a sign of what he expects from us.” Gift, then, is the basis for duty. We have not earned what we have and are or the world in which we live; therefore, we do not have license or entitlement over our gifts. We have duties to use them for the common good.
What, then, is the best way to organize society such that the gifts given to each are used for the benefit of all? One possibility is to empower a central authority to identify the gifts of each person, then to have that authority determine how we are to use our gifts. This is the totalitarian tendency, the desire for an authority to have total control over the resources gifted to persons and to all people.
There are two great flaws to this approach. The first is that it is impossible for any authority to adequately identify the gifts of each person. All humans are equal by birth, and none have the universal wisdom and insight to know perfectly the gifts of each person. Most people cannot even identify their own gifts, let alone those of others. Even making that authority a collective one, perhaps even one held by the entire society, does not resolve this problem. Identifying a person’s unique gifts is a task that requires far too much time and attention to be done by an external authority.
This problem is confounded by the reality that a person’s own gifts can become more apparent with experience and changes in life. This is especially true when a person has responsibility and can determine for himself how best to flourish. People discover their own gifts and find unique ways to cultivate them when they have responsibility. Any central authority that dictates a person’s life removes this sense of responsibility and the need for a person to develop his gifts.
Allocating responsibility to people, then, is a priority for enabling them to fully develop their gifts. Rights are the best way to allocate responsibility. By acknowledging a person’s rights, society is acknowledging his duties and investing in him the responsibility to live up to them. This is evident in any of the fundamental rights that we enjoy. When we say that every person has the right to speech, we are acknowledging that every person has the duty to cry out against injustice and to defend the vulnerable. The right toself-defense is the duty to protect oneself and others. The right to religion is the duty to honor God and to encourage others to do the same. The right to property is the duty to use resources for one’s own wellbeing and that of others.
By delegating duties to individual people and less to society, rights create room between people and their government. Someone who is free to live up to their duties is also accountable. To come back to the rights in the preceding paragraph, the right of every person to speak means that every person is accountable for calling attention to injustice, meaning that we do not need social workers monitoring every family and workplace. The right of every person to defend life means that every person is accountable for general safety, meaning that we do not need the police on every street corner. The right of every person to worship God means that every person is accountable for virtuous conduct, meaning that we do not need censors to enforce orthodoxy in every room. The right of every person to have and use property means that every person is accountable for productivity and planning, meaning that we do not need to ask commissars for permission to eat, or to read blogs. Rights mean that we are free, and that we are accountable for our own lives and conduct.
This, then, is the foundation for a free and virtuous society. As the Pope says in Caritas in Veritate, “we all know that we are a gift, not something self-generated.” We cannot have total autonomy, because the Giver of gifts has given us duties. Even for an atheist, this holds true, except that our duties are only to society and not to God. Duty establishes rights as the most efficacious way of being fulfilled. Rights imply accountability and responsibility to use them for the common good.
Society based on duties because of the reality of gift that rests on rights and allocates responsibility is both truly natural and truly humane.