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Chapter 10: From Modes of Responsibility to Moral Norms

Question E: How are rights and duties derived from the modes of responsibility?

1. All the modes of responsibility apply to each person’s acts which have an effect upon others. This is especially clear in the case of the second and fifth modes, which concern community responsibility and fairness. Also, it is obvious that among the actions against human good which the seventh and eighth modes forbid are those which destroy, damage, or impede the goods in others as well as in oneself. As for the other modes, they clearly apply to the acts of those whose laziness, cowardice, lack of self-control, or pursuit of the mere appearance of goods would have bad effects on others besides themselves.

That all the modes of responsibility apply to acts of one person toward another (or others) can be seen from the following examples. A person who thinks it would be good to help a stranger in distress (Titus in the first instance) and who fails to do so out of laziness violates the first mode of responsibility. The second mode precisely shapes one’s action to the needs and possibilities of community; a person who makes multiple commitments without considering conflicts among the responsibilities to others which might arise from these commitments violates this mode of responsibility. A mother who resists the marriage of a favorite child whom she does not wish to give up to another violates the third mode of responsibiltiy. A coward who unreasonably abandons companions in a dangerous situation violates the fourth mode of responsibility. The fifth mode precisely bears upon interpersonal allocation of burdens and benefits; a child who takes all the candy supplied for several children violates this mode of responsibility. A person who treats another with superficial cordiality instead of allowing real friendship to develop by engaging in more serious communication violates the sixth mode of responsibility. A person who reveals a damaging truth about another out of spite violates the seventh mode of responsibility. A person who kills a defective child to prevent its living a wretched life violates the eighth mode of responsibility.

2. Duties are responsibilities which one person or group has toward another or others. They include the mutual responsibilities of groups and their members. Since not all moral responsibilities concern others, not all are duties (see S.t., 1–2, q. 60, aa. 2–3; 2–2, q. 57, a. 1; q. 122, a. 1). (Note, however, that some do use the word “duty” to refer to all moral responsibilities, including even those which bear directly only upon oneself.) Since all modes of responsibility can apply to the acts of individuals or groups toward others, all can generate duties. As was explained in A above, not all modes have normative force in the same way; thus, not all duties are duties in the same way.

For example, one who fails through laziness to help another who needs help, but who has no other claim to help, violates a duty in one sense of “duty.” Titus had a duty to help the woman lying in the road. One who acts unfairly toward another violates a duty in a different (and many people would say “stricter”) meaning of “duty.” Titus had a duty to order his friend, if anyone, to do the dangerous job, since his friend was the person better qualified to do it, but he was passed over out of favoritism. One who chooses to act against the good of another in violation of the seventh or eighth modes of responsibility violates a duty in still other senses of “duty.” Titus had a duty to restrain himself from fighting with his father-in-law.

In very many cases, two or more modes of responsibility will be violated simultaneously if one acts wrongly. In many, but not all, acts affecting others, if one acts wrongly, one also acts unfairly. Not all, because, for instance, one can treat others badly in the same ways one treats oneself badly, by engaging in agreeable modes of self-destruction. In such cases, one violates a duty—in some sense of “duty”—to the other without being unfair. An example would be a person who fairly shares dope with his or her addict friends.

3. Not only is “duty” sometimes used more loosely than here, it is sometimes used more strictly. This is so when its meaning is restricted to instances where nonfulfillment of a responsibility would involve unfairness. These differences in usage are not important, provided they do not cause confusion.

4. Even if “duty” is used in the stricter sense—to refer only to responsibilities whose nonfulfillment is unfair—duties must be distinguished according to the other modes of responsibility involved. For instance, it is one thing to be unfair to others by enthusiastically overcommitting oneself and something different to be unfair by spitefully harming others.

5. Since duties have diverse moral sources, they differ as do specific moral norms generally. Many are nonabsolute (for example, the general duty to keep promises), while others are absolute (for example, the duty not to kill unwanted children). Many exist prior to anyone’s making any choice. This is true of duties grounded in the eighth mode of responsibility. Duties existing prior to any choice whatsoever can be said to pertain to human nature itself; thus a duty of this sort can be called a “natural duty.”

6. Many duties, however, arise from one’s own commitments and/or the decisions of authorities. Since they have a moral foundation and there are nonabsolute norms requiring that they be carried out, such commitments and decisions generate moral responsibilities. If these responsibilities bear upon other persons, they always involve—at least—a requirement of fairness. Yet these duties do not exist without a choice and so do not pertain to human nature itself. They can be called “positive duties,” for they are posited or placed upon one by one’s own commitment or the decision of someone in authority.

7. The word “rights” is used as a correlative to “duties.” Rights are not separate entities.5 Rather, right and duty are the same reality, “right” signifying its bearing upon the person or group affected by the action which the duty specifies (see S.t., 2–2, q. 57, a. 1; cf. 1–2, q. 100, a. 2).6 Thus, my right to life is nothing other than the duties of others not to kill me, to help me to survive, and so forth. Consequently there are as many meanings of “rights” as of “duties,” and all distinctions made concerning duties must also be made concerning rights.

8. It follows that, just as “duty” is often restricted to cases where the failure to fulfill a duty would be unfair, so it is often asserted that a “right” exists only where failure to perform the relevant duty would be unfair. Since one cannot be unfair to oneself, those who take this view think of rights as claims, or the bases for possible claims, to fair treatment.

The distinction between natural rights and positive rights is of great importance (see S.t., 2–2, q. 57, a. 2; q. 60, a. 5). This is evident when one considers the various entities called the “right to life.” The right to life which is based on the seventh and eighth modes of responsibility is a natural right. It is also absolute, because the duty not to choose to kill is absolute. However, one also speaks of the “right to life” of a person who needs help to survive (that is, the right to the help others can give). Such a right also is natural, yet it is nonabsolute—in response to further specification, it admits of exceptions, (for instance, in the case of a terminally ill patient taken off the respirator close to death).

Again, one speaks of the “right to life” of a patient who has a right to competent medical care based on a physician’s commitment to supply it. In many places, there is a legal cause of wrongful death if the physician negligently causes the patient’s death. But this violation of a right, though it leads to wrongful death, is not against a natural right, since the expectation of competent treatment is based only on the physician’s undertaking to provide it.

Such distinctions make it clear why one cannot argue from the positive and/or nonabsolute character of some things called “right to life” to the positive and nonabsolute character of everything called “right to life.” On the contrary, the right to life which is grounded in the duty not to choose to kill is natural and absolute.

From the preceding analysis it follows that one ought not to think of rights as basic moral principles, even though today many appeal to rights as if they were basic. Usually such appeals go nowhere, because rights are not self-evident, and what is gratuitously claimed can be summarily denied. Rights are intelligible only in terms of duties, and duties must be reduced to principles—namely, to the basic human goods and modes of responsibility. That anyone has a right of any sort is always a moral conclusion, never a moral principle.

5. See John Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), 198–230, esp. 205–10, for a discussion of various aspects of the concept of rights within a perspective very like that of the present work.

6. See John XXIII, Pacem in terris, 55 AAS (1963) 264; The Papal Encyclicals, 270.30, on the relevant reciprocity of rights and duties arising from natural law. The encyclical also stresses the tie between rights and duties in one and the same person (28–29). A right is a claim and opportunity to share in a human good, openness to which generates some specific responsibilities (duties in a broad sense) on the person who has the right.