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So I’m here in Richmond at the ISI Honors Conference. I’m trying to think up stuff to say about the theme of RIGHTS AND DUTIES. Here are some tentative observations, which may or may not be part of my talk on Thursday morning.

So we’ve heard plenty of reasons so far this week why we should be suspicious of the modern distinction between rights and duties. It’s more natural—not to mention more noble—to connect with privileges with responsibilities. Rights, properly understood, are points of honor. They’re defenses of privileges for which we should be grateful.

Now we democrats are suspicious of the word privileges. It sounds too much to some like what aristocrats unjustly have. And to others privileges sounds too much like entitlements that have been given by—and can be taken away—by government. Our egalitarian theorists use the word privilege as a verb for evildoing. Such as: He privileges same-sex marriage over other expressions of relational union by autonomous beings. Or he privileges the logocentric perspective of science and the phalloncentric perspective of men over other ways of experiencing the world. Or he privileges our species over the other species.

But the truth is that privileges, first of all, are gifts we’ve received from nature, God, and other persons. Our most important privileges are unearned gifts that distinguish each of us from the rest of creation. Being itself is best understood, by us, as a gift. And for Christians at least, my particular being—personal being—is the most strange and wonderful gift of all.

We alone among the animals are privileged by being able to live in the truth. We assume for good reasons that not even the supersmart Dolphin are able to do that, given the absence of dolphin poets, philosophers, priests, psychiatrists, princes, and so forth. That privilege of living in the truth is connected to the responsibility of living well with what we really know—often with we cannot help but know. We have the responsibility, as the anticommunist dissidents Havel and Solzhenitsyn said, not to lose ourselves in ideological lies. We also have, as Walker Percy said, the responsibility not surrender our personal sovereignty over each of us is to what the experts and their studies say. More generally, we have the responsibility not to spend our lives attempting to divert ourselves from what we really know.

We are also privileged by our capacity to use our mind and wills to transform technologically what we’ve been given by nature. We employ our techno-capabilities to enhance our status on this planet. We have been given the privilege of making ourselves more privileged. In some important ways, we here today are among the most privileged people ever. That also means, of course, that we have some unprecedented responsibilities.

What we can call our techno-privileges also haven’t been given to the wonderfully social and achingly cute dolphin. We can take the dolphin out anytime we want. But our fellow mammals can’t do the same to us. And, let’s face it, they, if they could think along those lines, would have plenty of reason to want to do so. So far, we have unevenly but genuinely assumed responsibility for that species’ future, as we have for lots of other species we want to keep around. But the news might not be so good for stupid and ugly but very tasty tuna.

Given our singular privileges, some say we have to assume the responsibility for the very future of life itself. Because we have the capacity of trashing our planet and ourselves, we have the responsibility not to do it. But we Christians know that there’s no reason to be that paranoid; we’re not so privileged that being itself is in our hands. And that’s because, in another way, we’re so privileged that, made in the image of God, we’re been given the personal gift of being more than biological beings.

Some, of course, have been given more privileges and so more responsibilities than others. And there’s little more repulsive than those who claim privileges but reject the corresponding responsibilities. Tocqueville explains that what made the 18th century French aristocracy repulsive was its detachment of its traditional privileges from corresponding political responsibilities. Those aristocrats weren’t statesmen like Burke. They were what Tocqueville called literary politicians who shot the bull in salons and wrote fashionable books about dangerous utopian theories without taking responsibility for the consequences of their words. And so they were, in effect, a stimulus package for a revolution that not only destroyed their privileges but murderously attempted to eradicate civilized privileges in general.

Even on DOWNTON ABBEY, the Earl of Grantham actually is quite admirable when he employs his privileges to take responsibility for the people in his village. He only becomes repulsive when he vainly and lazily neglects what he needs to do to sustain what is basically the family business.

Getting back to America, higher education, especially a residential liberal-arts education, is a privilege especially for people like us. We’re privileged by nature and the way we’ve been raised not only to benefit from such an education, but actually to need it.

The point of liberal education is to figure our who you are and what you’re supposed to do. Now that kind of education wouldn’t have to occur in college, as it doesn’t, for example, for the wandering and wondering characters in Walker Percy novels. It’s just that these days it usually does.


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