We have lost both the desire and the ability to engage in arguments in the public square out of fear of being called bigots. Whether it is the debate surrounding gay “marriage,” “women’s health,” or another issue, discrimination is viewed as the great social sin of the twenty-first century. While the accusation may spell the death of argument, one can revive the debate by challenging the contention that all forms of discrimination are morally wrong. In order to do this we must first understand the roots of this erroneous claim.
When Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in the 1830s, he found that democratic principles animated nearly every aspect of American life. What struck him most was what he called the equality of conditions among the people. Perhaps surprising to most Americans today, he found that love of equality—not freedom—was “the ruling passion of men” in the U.S. Tocqueville feared that the more the principle of equality takes hold of a society, the more pressure there is to see everyone as essentially identical. When equality reigns, any form of discrimination is bad because it classifies the other as somehow different. To discriminate seems absolutely un-American.
To exacerbate the problem, in a democracy many beliefs attain unquestioned acceptance because the only intellectual authority is the opinion of the majority. Tocqueville thought that one crucial check against the potential tyranny of the majority was the power of religion in forming mores.
The principle underlying the American hatred of discrimination—that “all men are created equal”—is the fruit of what Jacques Maritain termed the “hidden work” of the Gospel on the secular conscience. Specifically, it rests upon the dignity of the human person. Yet the equal dignity of every person does not mean that all people are equal in every way. Christians can act as a check on democracy by reminding their fellow citizens that although all people are equal in dignity, they are very different with respect to their roles and their contributions to the common good. This important distinction reminds Americans that we are called to excellence.
Tocqueville also noticed that democracy and the love of equality affect the English language. In particular he found that Americans have a “passionate addiction” to generic terms because they condense many objects into a few words. Along these same lines, Americans often omit modifiers in order to avoid the hard work of scrutinizing ideas. An obvious example of this habit is the term “pro-choice,” which refers to someone in favor of performing a certain act without actually naming and, more important, scrutinizing what that act is.
The truth about man is that he is a discriminating animal. Through the use of his reason he is able to discriminate between what a thing is and what it is not. One could argue that to cease discriminating is to cease being human. To accuse someone of discrimination is to accuse them of being human—in that respect we are all guilty. A moment’s reflection leads us to conclude that a key adjective is missing. It is not a question of discrimination, but whether the discrimination is just or unjust. By avoiding the use of the adjective just, Americans dodge the tough question of what constitutes just behavior.
A discussion of just discrimination presupposes that we understand what justice is. Broadly speaking, justice is defined as giving each man his due. Any act of justice flows from the realization that something is man’s due. In other words, a discussion of rights must come before a discussion of justice.
Nearly every controversy in America is framed as a clash of rights between two groups. We pit things like the “right to life” against the “right to choose,” which leaves us locked in a battle of wills. This battle arises in part from the ambiguous manner in which we discuss rights. Pope Benedict in Caritas in Veritate recognized this great ambiguity in rights language and called for a “renewed reflection on how rights presuppose duties.” The Holy Father reminds us that man has a duty to seek those goods which perfect him. Because man has that duty, he has a corresponding right to pursue those goods. Our Founding Fathers recognized this and dubbed these rights as “inalienable,” meaning that because man has a duty to pursue them, he could not give them away.
Adjectival avoidance is an especially vexing problem in the discussion of rights. To speak of unspecified rights can lead to conversational chaos, as the word can have radically different meanings. Thus, any mention of rights should be preceded by a modifier. In particular the distinction must be between natural, positive, and civil rights. Natural rights are those which belong to all men by virtue of their nature (their “equality”). On the other hand, positive rights are granted by some authority through either contract or convention, and civil rights refer to rights specific to citizens. Positive and civil rights ought to protect and promote natural rights.
Making distinctions like these—between natural, positive, and civil rights, and between just and unjust discrimination—is crucial to healthy public debate. Fr. John Courtney Murray once remarked that “civilization is formed by men locked together in argument.” There is no sharper dagger penetrating the heart of civil discourse than the accusation of bigotry and discrimination. If we are to remain civil, we must be prepared to challenge the accusation of discrimination.
Rob Agnelli holds a master’s degree in theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. He lives in Raleigh, N.C., with his wife Allison and their three sons.
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