Magazine | February 25, 2013, Issue

Gradgrinds of Rights

Why is our moral imagination so limited?

Future historians will marvel (at least I hope that they will) at the rapidity with which our age transmutes a politically contingent change in the law into a self-evidently unalienable human right similar to that of freedom of speech or a fair trial: a change in the law that only shortly before would have seemed bizarre or ridiculous even to its supposed beneficiaries. Never has the passage from patent absurdity to unassailable orthodoxy been shorter.

A sentence from President Obama’s inaugural address captured perfectly our society’s peculiar tendency to sudden moral enthusiasms, a sign not so much of its critical open-mindedness as of its bored restlessness. The president seemed to have been seized by a fit of moral exaltation (and exhortation) about homosexual marriage:

Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law — for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.

This is not only preposterous from beginning to end but probably disingenuous into the bargain. The last thing a professional reformer, that is to say a person who derives his sense of transcendent purpose from directing political change, ever wants is for our journey to end, for there to be fixed and settled principles (such as that marriage is by definition an arrangement between a man and a woman) by which we can live at the end of our life as we lived at its beginning. A professional reformer must be up and doing precisely because he is a reformer, and consequently always on the lookout for new moral applecarts to upset. His need to find something to reform is greater than his need to reform anything in particular. As a burglar in prison once protested to me when I asked him whether he was going to give up his life of crime, “How can I give up? I’m a burglar, burgling’s what I do.”

To suggest that if we are all created equal we must all receive equal treatment is to make a category mistake. Equality before the law does not mean that the law-abiding and the criminal must meet with exactly the same fate, any more than fair dealing means treating people in exactly the same way irrespective of their conduct. A doctor must explain things to all his patients, but in doing so he must adapt what he says to their level of understanding. His estimate of their capacity might sometimes or even often be wrong, but the possibility of error does not absolve him from the necessity of making the attempt. A doctor who spoke in exactly the same fashion to a man with an IQ of 75 as to a Ph.D. in astrophysics would not be obeying the ethical injunction to treat every patient equally: He would be acting incompetently in failing to make a proper distinction.

The language of rights (other than the most basic ones) soon leads to the most atrocious humbug, and not only in America. In France, for example, the campaign for homosexual marriage uses the slogan Mariage pour tous, “Marriage for all.” But “all” cannot possibly mean all: or if it does, it empties “marriage” of its specificity or significance (which may, of course, be the underlying motive of the campaign). “All” in this context almost inevitably means all in the sense of le tout Paris: But as an astute bisexual letter writer to the Guardian pointed out, he surely would have a right both to a male and a female spouse, if he was not to be the object of discrimination by the marriage laws. For, as President Obama said, if we are truly created equal, then the love we commit to one another must be equal as well, no matter how many we commit it to.

There may be arguments in favor of homosexual marriage, but equality of rights is assuredly not one of them.

The discovery of hitherto unsuspected rights, which because they are supposedly universal and human must always have existed on some ethereal plane or other, like the truths of mathematics, is one of the most insidious but effective ways of politicizing life, to the great benefit of the political class and its bureaucratic subalterns. For human rights are like a jealous god that will have no other gods before it; they must be worshipped exclusively.

For example, when I say to people that I do not believe that anyone has a right to health care, they look at me — a doctor — almost in disbelief. “How can you say that?” they ask. “Do you think that people should be allowed to die in the street of curable diseases?”

#page#To this I reply with a question of my own. “Can you think of any reason why people should not be allowed to die in the street of curable diseases other than that they have a right to health care?” Oddly enough, often they can’t: It is as if the doctrine of rights had driven all other moral considerations and feelings from their minds and hearts. They are the Thomas Gradgrinds of human rights:

Teach these boys and girls nothing but Rights. Rights alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Rights: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Rights, sir!

The notion of rights acts as a kind of virus in their brains that constricts their moral imagination. They must suppose that people go to the assistance of an old lady who falls because she has an unalienable right to be helped up.

Rights have an inherent tendency in statist societies (such as all Western societies have become or are in the process of becoming) to move from abstractions that impose no financial burdens on others to tangible benefits that do. This is because the category mistake about equality is repeated over and over again: For many people there is no equality without equality of outcome or at least of treatment. Rights become meaningless unless they are actually exercised.

Thus the right of a woman to have a child once meant that no legal power existed to stop her, for example by sterilization or forced abortion, from having one if she so wished: But increasingly it has come to mean the right actually to give birth to or possess a child. Thus treatment for infertility becomes a right; and since equality means equal treatment or equal outcome, no distinction may be made between the kinds of woman or couple seeking such treatment. A further nail is thereby driven into the coffin of the time-honored family; and the Promethean bargain is no longer made on behalf of mankind, but on behalf of each individual man or woman who decides for him- or herself where limits should be set, or whether there should be any limits. In countries such as Britain, where health care is all but nationalized, everyone must pay for everyone else’s right to a child, however unsuited to parenthood the other party may be, for to exclude anyone would be to deny equality of treatment and the universal right to health care.

The extension of rights increases the scope, reach, and power of government, the state, and the law by a variety of mechanisms. Rights need defending and adjudicating where they clash one with another, and the only plausible way of defending or adjudicating them is by means of the courts. An employee of the town council in the little English town in which I live believed that the council had infringed her “rights,” and she sued unsuccessfully. It cost the town council more than $500,000 to defend itself against the action, money that will be irrecoverable from the plaintiff: but not from the townspeople, at a cost of perhaps $200 a household. They, of course, will have no right of refusal to pay.

Entire bureaucratic departments have been set up in every public institution to ensure compliance with various complex and often conflicting rights, departments that thrive on complaint as a justification for their own existence, and therefore sow dissension. The existence of a maze of regulations destroys informality in institutions, turning practically all encounters into formal procedures, than which no better method for the promotion of mediocrity (to say nothing of dishonesty and insincerity) could well be found.

In the last year of my employment in a British public hospital, a form was circulated from the personnel department asking for (among other things) the employees’ race, religion, and sexual orientation. This was allegedly so that no discrimination could take place in promotion. Of course, if the information was not already known to the promoting authorities, they could not discriminate, even if they wanted to; but never mind, the shameless obtrusiveness let us know just who was boss. Here was a case of the medium really being the message. There were 17 races, twelve religions, and six sexual orientations to choose from. I wrote to say that if the department could think of only six sexual orientations, it must have a very limited sexual imagination. I received no reply.

– Mr. Dalrymple is a contributing editor of City Journaland the author, most recently, of The Pleasure of Thinking.

Theodore Dalrymple — Mr. Dalrymple, a retired doctor, is a contributing editor of City Journal and The New English Review. His next book, False Positive: A Year of Error, Omission, and Political Correctness in the New England Journal of Medicine, will be published in June.

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