Devon, PA. In his latest Public Discourse essay, the always compelling R.J. Snell offers his analysis of the pullulation of rights discourse in the modern West.  One suspects that anyone capable of asserting –and Snell’s point is that all rights talk now boils down to mere assertion of will — again, anyone capable of asserting a “right to sexual pleasure” has long since given up thinking about everything else so fervid has he become for this legal apotheosis.  Here is just a pair of paragraphs from Snell’s incisive argument:

The story of Adam’s recognition profoundly bears the truth of human reality. We are meant to be with and for each other, but find ourselves with a distorted politics of recognition. Having refused the moral foundation—and limits—of substantial equality, we lack grounds to recognize the equality of the other. Rights proliferate precisely as they lose their grounding and meaning. No longer able to recognize the other as equal in substance, we instead look at the other without recognition—they are strangers, alien. We claim purely indeterminate freedom for ourselves, but such freedom is possible only on the condition that the stranger recognizes our indeterminacy and leaves us alone. In other words, rather than beginning with the recognition of similarity in substantial equality, we instead define our rights as our wish to be ignored and left alone in solitary freedom, a freedom denying our nature as relational and hospitable to others.

If we stopped here we might simply have a society of persons politely ignoring each other, but as we are well aware this is not the case. The IPPF asks for something rather more than to be left alone. It aggressively claims that the rights it identifies must be respected, protected, and fulfilled, and it further stipulates that such actions require defense against religion. Rather than simply demanding to be left alone, the new sexual inversion demands recognition, even when there are no grounds for this recognition.

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James Matthew Wilson is Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University. An award-winning scholar of philosophical-theology and literature, he has authored dozens of essays, articles, and reviews on subjects ranging from art, ethics, and politics, to meter and poetic form, from the importance of local culture to the nature of truth, goodness, and beauty. Wilson is also a poet and critic of contemporary poetry, whose work appears regularly in such magazines and journals as First Things, Modern Age, The New Criterion, Dappled Things, Measure, The Weekly Standard, Front Porch Republic, The Raintown Review, and The American Conservative. He has published five books, including most recently, a collection of poems, Some Permanent Things and a monograph, The Catholic Imagination in Modern American Poetry (both Wiseblood Books, 2014). Raised in the Great Lakes State, baptised in the parish of St. Thomas Aquinas, seasoned by summers on Lake Wawasee (Indiana), and educated under the Golden Dome, Wilson is scion of a family of Hoosiers dating back to the early nineteenth century, and an offspring of Southside Chicago Poles whose tavern kept the city wet through the Depression (and prohibition) years.  He now lives under the same sentence of reluctant exile as many another native son of the Midwest, but has dug himself in for good on the margins of the Main Line in Pennsylvania with his beautiful wife, dangerous daughter, and saintly sons. For information on Wilson's scholarship and a selection of his published work, click here. See books written and recommended by James Matthew Wilson.

7 COMMENTS

  1. So he’s casting this as an anthropological problem? If we don’t agree on what our common humanity is, then we cannot enforce ethical conventions on those who’s model is incongruous with our own?

    I’m not arguing. I’m asking if I understand the “substantive equality” he’s appealing to for authority.

    • Rather, classical liberalism, whatever else one may say about it, does ground itself in some kind of coherent account of human nature. Snell does not discuss this, but liberalism also works, from its fundamental premises, to force that account out of the public realm, leaving only the structure of “rights” built from it. Thus, the intellectual justification of rights has evaporated even as the kinds of rights asserted has proliferated.

      • Classical liberalism, yes. Subsequent liberals, most notably Rawls, have believed they could dispense with such concerns, which in turn has made the crisis we face even deeper, for the Rawlsian re-reading is a palimpsest which obscures the implicit foundationalism of liberalism’s origins. Such a reading makes any sort of justification of rights impossible. The interesting question you raise here is whether such vacating is an intrinsic part of he liberal project. I’m not as convinced of this as you seem to be, for I’m not convinced liberalism requires an obscuring of its own principles. It’s an important argument.

  2. Classical liberalism, yes. Subsequent liberals, most notably Rawls, have believed they could dispense with such concerns, which in turn has made the crisis we face even deeper, for the Rawlsian re-reading is a palimpsest which obscures the implicit foundationalism of liberalism’s origins. Such a reading makes any sort of justification of rights impossible. The interesting question you raise here is whether such vacating is an intrinsic part of he liberal project. I’m not as convinced of this as you seem to be, for I’m not convinced liberalism requires an obscuring of its own principles. It’s an important argument.

  3. Hi, Jeff,

    I’m firmly in the James Kalb camp: procedural liberalism begets substantive liberalism, which means the only publically recognized rational criteria for political decisions eventually becomes equality and freedom, i.e. “equal freedom.”

  4. What is “substantial equality” that one should be mindful of it? It sounds too much like liberalism sneaking one of its abstractions into the narrative of creation. Perhaps, in my ignorance, I do not understand; but perhaps, in my ignorance, I intuit another snake.

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