Posted in book reviews, Christian ethics

When rights are secondary: Duty rediscovered

Under guard and carefully preserved in the refrigerated atrium of the National Archives in Washington D.C. are the precious parchments upon which our country was founded. We reverently shuffled past the glass display cases, the low light barely illuminating the faded documents. To the left resides the Declaration of Independence while in the center is the Constitution. As we made our way to the right of the chamber a third document came into view. Dimly visible was the Bill of Rights, the sacred words that make up the first ten amendments to the Constitution.

Talk of “rights” is nothing new on the American scene. A course in American history is replete with the concept of rights, whether the rights of slaves to be free, the rights of women to vote or the rights of citizens to have access to affordable health care. But in our rush to claim our rights, more people are beginning to ask:

What is my duty?

Meic Pearse is one such voice. In Why the Rest Hates the West: Understanding the Roots of Global Rage (InterVarsity Press, 2004), he writes to those who have trouble understanding the context that gave rise to the atrocities of September 11, 2001. His argument is far-ranging, but a key plank in his thesis is the “me” orientation of Western (North American and European) culture vs. the “we” perspective of the non-Western world, what Pearse calls “the rest,” i.e. Africa, South America, and Asia. If the West were content to live out its radically individualistic credo without exporting it to the rest of the world, conflict could be avoided. However, in myriad ways, Pearse insists that countries like the United States are engaged in cultural imperialism, imposing our supposed superior values on others. One powerful source for this imperialism is media which includes sources on both sides of the political spectrum. Pearse observes (see Kindle location 1942):

Some of the American syndicates are right wing in the sense that they take the rightness of the Western outlook, the legitimacy of Western actions and the sacrosanct interests of massive corporations more or less for granted. Others, especially Public Broadcasting Service, National Public Radio and the BBC, are more thoughtful but are dominated (despite genuflections in the direction of neutrality) by the concerns of the left and its rights culture, and so are characterized by skepticism toward traditional morality as inimical to the latter. All, in their different ways, are committed to Western cultural imperialism.

Pearse’s use of the term “rights culture” is not accidental. He blames it for the self-absorption apparent in much of Western culture. It is the opposite of a duty-based ethic, one that operates not based upon what any individual’s rights are in a given situation, but rather what are his or her obligations. Taking abortion as an example, Pearse laments that the seemingly interminable debate has thus far been framed primarily in-terms of rights. So, we speak of an “unborn child’s right to life” vs. a “woman’s right to choose.” Inevitably, it is the nascent child who loses the argument and is terminated because he or she cannot be heard. But what would happen if the debate were conducted not in terms of rights but responsibilities? Pearse continues (location 781):

Now let us recast this debate in the language of obligations and duties. Who, in this circumstance of an undesired pregnancy, has an obligation to whom? Again, the winner is preordained. It is the child. For clearly the woman and her sexual partner-and perhaps others too-have a duty to nurture and protect him or her. To argue otherwise, it would be necessary to say that the child has a duty to die so that the mother and her partner (or relatives, or society) are not inconvenienced.

The use of a “duty ethic” is helpful in the case of abortion but is not as clear-cut as it might seem at first. Why not? While Pearse is correct to underscore the importance of the rediscovery of obligation and responsibility, he fails to ask a crucial question, namely: To whom (or to what) do I owe my highest duty? Is my highest duty to my ancestors, my family currently living, my tribe, my nation, the earth as a whole, or to God? Such a question is far from academic when making value judgments.

For example, Pearse gives extended treatment to demographics, especially as related to the declining birthrate in the West. He laments the various factors that have created a perfect storm. Together, these have severely diminished the number of children born, no small consideration in-light of the social programs that depend upon taxpaying workers to remain solvent, programs such as pensions for the retired. The factors that have decimated the birthrate are many, but include widely available contraceptives, the sterilizing effects of medical conditions like anorexia nervosa and the rise of homosexual practice.  What is the answer? Pearse (location 1805) recommends a “massive cultural reversal” and calls on the West to “rejoin the human race.” Though he does not explicitly tell the reader to “Go make babies!”, the preceding description of high birth rates in non-Western countries leaves little doubt that this is precisely what Pearse is advocating.

But again, one must ask: Toward whom does my duty lie? If my duty is to my family or my government, then procreating rapidly to save the pension system (or other cooperative efforts organized by the government) makes sense. Yet not everyone agrees on the object of our duty. Some will argue that our highest duty is not to my country but to the earth, and with 7 billion already on the planet with no end in sight, it may be argued that our higher duty is to decrease the world’s human population (through a negative birthrate) so that the rest of the ecosystem is not destroyed. Seen in such a light, having only half as many citizens in my country by the year 2100  could be viewed not as catastrophic but as desirable, contrary to Pearse’s assumption.

So at the end of the day, it is a more complex issue than simply vilifying those who insist on “rights” as the destroyers of culture and praising those who advocate “duty” as its saviors. Rather, both sides could legitimately claim the mantle of “responsibility’ and still end up drawing radically different road maps for the future. Somehow, there must be a balance of duties. How can my duty to my ancestors to continue my family line be balanced with my duty to not overtax the limited resources of a finite planet? In the Western context, to answer that question may require a return to solutions that are locally based, what C.R. Wiley has called “householding.” These are homegrown and sustainable economic models bearing no resemblance to the government schemes current today, economic systems that are much older and pre-date the industrial revolution. In such a design, 2-3 children are adequate to care for aging parents, to help maintain a multi-generational family homestead that is self-contained or at least that operates in a much smaller, localized setting with a minimal environmental footprint. This would fulfill family responsibilities yet not unduly encumber the global ecosystem.

Meic Pearse has written an intriguing book. Though eight years old, it continues to generate response. His elevation of duty above rights is a discussion that desperately needs to happen especially as we Westerners seek to be responsible global citizens, trying  to understand why many non-Westerners believe that we have fallen far short of that mark.


Greg is interested in many topics, including theology, philosophy, and science.

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