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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.