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Moral Duties and Positive Rights

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During a conference I attended last year, I got into some conversation with young libertarians about the nature of moral duties. In at least two instances, I asserted that positive moral duties exist.

In these conversations, initially I was accused of not being a libertarian because I affirmed positive rights. This accusation was apparently meant to give me pause, but I simply shrugged, “So be it. If being a libertarian means denying positive moral duties, then I’m not a libertarian!” I then pointed out that I never said that government must be the agent of respecting or meeting those duties, to which the accusatory tone of my dialog partners subsided.

I gave the biblical example of the case of the Good Samaritan, who recognized the love imperative to stop and assist a victim of violent crime. I think it is an established element of Christian theological ethics that both negative and positive rights exist as a basic reality. That’s why we can commit both sins of commission and sins of omission, and the Book of Common Prayer includes confession to God that “we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.”

This, for instance, is in part why the Westminster Larger Catechism, in its exposition of the Decalogue, describes both the positive and negative elements that are obliged in each commandment. So in the case of the commandment against murder, the Catechism outlines both “duties required” and “sins forbidden,” the former of which include “comforting and succoring the distressed, and protecting and defending the innocent,” and the latter of which include avoiding anything that “tends to the destruction of the life of any” (Q&A 134-136).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his classic text, Life Together, that

The other person is a burden to the Christian, in fact for the Christian most of all. The other person never becomes a burden at all for the pagans. They simply stay clear of every burden the other person may create for them. However, Christians must bear the burden of one another. They must suffer and endure one another. Only as a burden is the other really a brother or sister and not just an object to be controlled. The burden of human beings was even for God so heavy that God had to go to the cross suffering under it.

The confusion of these young libertarian thinkers on the distinction between positive and negative rights as well as the knee-jerk assumption that positive rights entail government action speaks to the important difference between libertarianism as a political philosophy and libertarianism as a full-blown world-and-life view. The former is certainly not without its problematic elements, but is far superior to a Weltanschauung that cannot account for positive moral responsibilities to family, friend, and neighbor.

By the way, I don’t mean to equate the errors of a few representatives with the entire variegated classical liberal tradition. Arnold Kling’s articulation of a “civil societarian” perspective seems pretty well immune to the criticisms noted above.

As I noted above, the parable of the Good Samaritan illustrates the claims upon my time and abilities that are made by other people. Bonhoeffer writes,

We must allow ourselves to be interrupted by God, who will thwart our plans and frustrate our ways time and again, even daily, by sending people across our path with their demands and requests. We can, then, pass them by, preoccupied with our more important daily tasks, just as the priest–perhaps reading the Bible–pass by the man who had fallen among robbers.

Ironically, Bonhoeffer rightly observed that religious professionals face a particular danger in not respecting the concrete claims of individual moral responsibility.

It is a strange fact that, of all people, Christians and theologians often consider their work so important and urgent that they do not want to let anything interrupt it. They think they are doing God a favor, but actually they are despising God’s “crooked yet straight path” (Gottfried Arnold).

I explore the truth of this observation in my own experience in a previous Acton Commentary, “The Good Samaritan: Model of Effective Compassion.”

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Roger McKinney

    Excellent response to the libertarians. You probably ran into anarchist libertarians who follow Rothbard and Hoppe in claming that any and all government is evil by definition. They equate positive rights with government edicts.

    Rothbard and Hoppe are absolutely brilliant on economics, but they have taken libertarianism down a false and dangerous path with their anarchism. Rothbard then tried to develop an ethical code based solely on private property, which Hoppe as expanded. They declare property an absolute, which makes taxation theft and all war murder. They see no obligation or even good in helping another person. It’s very sad.

    Still, I don’t think we should let them hijack the word “libertarian” in the same way the left stole the term liberal. Anarchists have no more right to define words than we do. Milton Friedman considered himself a libertarian, as did Alan Greenspan. I think Mises would have considered himself libertarian as well. All of these great men saw government as a good thing.

    Christians should distance themselves from the anarchism of Rothbard and Hoppe by it proposes an ethical system as a substitute for Biblical morals. Rothbard clames that his system is not innovative, but merely extends natural law, then he violates natural law by making property the absolute gage of all actions and denies the legitimacy of governments.

  • Thanks, Roger. I agree with you about the incompatibility of anarcho-capitalism and Christianity…as well as about the diversity of “libertarian” viewpoints.

    I examined the former topic in somewhat greater depth [url=]here[/url].

  • A. Scott Crawford

    I suspect there are better argued authorities than those briefly mentioned…

    This debate seems at heart to be a return to the Entlightenment and reformation debates that specificially arose over legitimate differences in various polis’ and cultures and institutions understanding of the basis and bounds that defined the appropriate relational bounds between an individual and larger genuses of “government” or associations to which said individuals belonged and the disputes that arose over those differences of opinion.

    Thus when you write “Christian”, this perhaps is confused by some listeners, especially Americans, in a historical context that enshrined one particular Christian sect as established authority in determining the relations between individual and community and community and higher categories of political organization. This is often the pitfall of applying scripture or biblical examples in the discussion of modern debates over the degree of obligation, responsibility and ethic. I’ve spent a great deal of time admiring political ministers writiings from the colonial era (Cotton Mather, J. Winthrop, etc., and while there are many reasonable and valid arguments presented for the merits of one reading of Chistian obligation or another, the actual history of attempting to apply these in any universal sense is certainly a recipie for disaster.

    Modern “Libertarians” in general, have a habit of falling back on a very reactionary response to quite basic and fundamental “Christian” appeals for a number of reasons. First, most are so focused on the “economic” aspects of Classic Liberalism that their education regarding the philosophic roots of these questions is lacking. We are, after all, exiting an epoch of materialist and economic justifications that on the whole, are more likely to reject meta-physics (including theology and meta-Ethics) out of hand rather than concede ANYTHING. THis isn’t due to “Libertarianism”, but rather to our eras Epistemological hangover… particularly relating to popular misconceptions regarding scientific theories and associated bugbears, that ironically have become an orthodox scholasticism every bit as restictive and UNSCIENTIFIC as the pre-reformation Roman Church. These orthodoxies are what has been the focus of most Libertarians primary educations, and have quite actively excluded classic and enlightenment authors to the extent that the large majority of Libertarians typically find, when confronted by a seminary or classical set of arguments, that for all their pride in claiming to place reason above ideology, they tend to become quite defensive and dogmatic and unreasonable; this in turn often causes them to become taciturn and hostile if they’re unable to acknowledge the limits of their own eduction.

    The second aspect of the confusion that’s often overlooked is the difference between the American colonial experience in relation to the socio-economics that defined and bounded European and Asian perspectives towards the relation between the Man and the State. For the large majority of American history, the family and sept/tribe/town level of organization dominated our politicical development. Outside the plantation cultures, colonialists adopted the survival techniques of indians of the geographic regions where they settled, which requires a much different social understanding of cooperation and communal obligation and social order.

    The Indo-European and Asian patterns of historic social evolution were codified and institutionalized at a very early stage. The invasions of cultures that were organized on smaller scales, when sucessful, merely took over the hghest caste functions of the much more advanced civilizations they conquered and were intergrated in this manner. This became reproduced with each successive demagraphic shift through the formation of literate, adminstrative castes (typically priest castes, although in China it was directly administrative). This is why it’s so common to find Bramens in India, Functionaries in China, and Churchmen in Europe formed similiar practices and caste systems.

    These social hierarchies are very deeply rooted in Eurasian cultures in general, to the extent that many of the biases pass unnoticed. It’s also why there’s so often a dramatic friction when these unexamined or acknowledged biases cause the social cultures of those areas into a confrontation with American colonial cultures (or northern European, or etc). In matters of Law, tribal/polis interatction, or the excercise of personal behaviors that might make perfect sense elsewhere, but which are NOT the foundations of the U.S. Constitutional Republic or understandable in an American context.

    Basically, I’ve tried to give you a short overview of this rather than address the “Christian” or “Anarchist” or etc. aspects of your arguments because I think it’s important to begine by appreciating that American colonial history DOES NOT have any common conception of “Christian” as a single sect, and in many cases one regional culture will respond to the suggestion otherwise as quite sinister. Because our epoch has elevated athiesm to the level of theology, and because atthisem, rather than Unitarianism or Gnosticism, combines the eurasian conception of “all inclusive” small “c” catholic authority derived from central institutions, this expectation determines what the irreligious and or vulgar believe to be the appropriate grounds for the application of force in the pursuit of “moral” order.

    For “Libertarians” who are not well versed or educated in theology, a “Chritians” fallacious ad verecundiam appeal to this or that selection of this or that version of scripture, seems indistinguishable from any other fallacious appeal used to justify arbitrary and/or selective use and abuse of authority.

    Third. It is also a modern vice to usurp the common definition and/or understanding of a term like “Liberal” (which doesn’t remotely describe modern “Liberals”) or “Progressive” or etc. in a cynical and calculated attempt to misrepresent an opposed ideology in order for demagogues to confuse the public regarding some minorities actual political philosophies. E.G. “Christian” is typically used in academia to imply bigoted and uneducated (forget that there’s still no match for the Jesuit University). This is allowed to slip by because the proffesors and departments that condone this mispresentation are more or less in competition with the “Classics” education that’s the basis of most seminary scholarship. (Not many “English professors” are eductated enough to read Latin, Greek or hebrew).

    I point this out because very few “Libertarians’ can be described as anarchists (as a “Libertarian anarchist” is an oxymoron). And in doing so hope that Christian readers will consider that classifying Libertarians as anarchists over a disagrement in the obligation and liabilities that exist relating to membership of a “Nation” or even a “species” niether addresses the substantive differences of opinion, nor demonstrates an attitude markedly different than that with whcih athiests slander Christians.

    Regardless…. here’s some classic links on the subject: