The Meaning of “Rights” II: the Natural Law

September 24, 2009

We had an excellent discourse in response to a recent post about the existence of “rights.”  The comments delved a bit deeper into the existence of God and the Natural Law.  This morning I came across a paper written by Frank Beckwith, summarizing the work of J. Budziszewski on the Natural Law (Beckwith and Budziszewski are two of the biggest influences in my thinking on the subject).  I find Beckwith’s opening illustration apt to our recent discussion.  He writes:

Several years ago when I was on the philosophy department faculty at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, when the school sported a very good basketball team, one of my students, obviously frustrated with the points I was making in class, blurted out the question, “Why is the truth important?” I distinctly remember the befuddled look on her face seconds after I offered the reply, “Do you want the true answer or the false one?”

A few days later, in the same class, another student, taking up the cause of his befuddled peer, claimed, with great confidence, that there are no objective moral norms and that there was no way that anyone, including his professor, could possibly show him otherwise. At that point, I looked at him squarely in the eye, with as stern a facial expression I could muster, and told him, “Please sit down and shut up. I am right and you are wrong. And that’s that.” He was, as one would guess, visibly shaken. There was dead silence in the classroom. His peers, who were obviously displeased with the treatment he received, were not about to come to his defense. They were, rightfully, upset with their professor. But they remained mute. So, I let the moment sink in, for about 15 seconds, though it seemed like an eternity.

I then broke the silence, and asked the shaken student, “Are you upset about something?” “Yes,” he answered, “you treated me rudely.” I replied, “I do not disagree. Am I wrong in thinking that you had a justified expectation that I should have dialogued with you in a way that was respectful?” “No, you are not wrong,” he said, “That is exactly what I expected.” I continued, “It seems to me that your expectation is perfectly justified, and that I was wrong in treating you in the fashion I did. But that expectation relies on the veracity of a deeper truth, that you are the sort of being that is entitled to reasons when matters of moral concern are brought to your attention. I did not give you reasons. I merely asserted my power. What you realized at the moment of offense was the moral truth you have always known: might does not make right.” I paused and again let the silence do its work. For the student knew where the conversation was going. He knew that he had been relying, unwittingly, on the resources of the natural law in order to reject as illegitimate the treatment he had received at the hands of his mean professor. We were like two men at a restaurant sharing a meal while debating the existence of the chef, and one of the men was talking with his mouth full.

Now, one might argue that the student was simply displeased with the unusual treatment he received at the hands of his professor.  But mere “displeasure” does not go far enough to explain the fact that he was offended.  There are other unpleasurable and unexpected things the professor might have done, like give a pop quiz.  That would have been irritating, not offensive.  Our notion of “offended” implies an offense, the violation of something more than a man-made rule.  Moreover, the student’s expectation that his professor would offer him reasons that truth exists in response to his assertion demonstrates the student’s belief in the necessity of objective reasons, which necessitates objective truth.

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