7.1.2 Duties and rights: some basics

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Unit 7 Contents


While the ‘classic text’ on human dignity in CST is Gaudium et Spes of 1965, that on human rights is Pacem in Terris, an encyclical issued by Pope John XXIII in 1963.

After stating that the human person “has duties and rights, which together flow as a direct consequence from his nature” (#9), Pope John went on to say very straightforwardly what some of these rights are:

[Everyone] has the right to life, to bodily integrity, and to the means which are suitable for the proper development of life; these are primarily food, clothing, shelter, rest, medical care, and finally the necessary social services. Therefore a human being also has the right to security in cases of sickness, inability to work, widowhood, old age, unemployment, or in any other case in which he is deprived of the means of subsistence through no fault of his own.

By the natural law every human being has the right to respect for his person, to his good reputation; the right to freedom in searching for truth and in expressing and communicating his opinions, and in pursuit of art, within the limits laid down by the moral order and the common good… (Pacem in Terris, ##11-12)1

He continues enumerating the rights that humans have until #27.  He then turns to human duties: “The natural rights with which We have been dealing are, however, inseparably connected… with just as many respective duties” (#28).  He goes on:

Therefore, to cite a few examples, the right of every man to life is correlative with the duty to preserve it; his right to a decent standard of living with the duty of living it becomingly; and his right to investigate the truth freely, with the duty of seeking it ever more completely and profoundly. (#29)

This is all very concrete.  Pope John writes about rights to “food, clothing, shelter, rest, medical care” and to freedom in “expressing and communicating [one’s] opinions”, and so on. (That said, we could have a good discussion about what counts as living “becomingly”.)  The point is: these things are what persons must have because they are human, just so that they can have the possibility of living in a way that’s consistent with their human dignity.

If people are deprived of those things, there is failure by others to relate to them as people.  They will suffer in ways in which no-one ever should – from hunger or treatable illness, or by being silenced.

Of course, people all have a duty to act to secure those things for themselves, by proper means.  But the text manifests with utter clarity a great and urgent concern for people who are denied those rights through no fault of their own.

During study of this topic, we need to keep a sense of this urgency.  There are human rights being denied across the globe and this must change.  This is what CST calls for.

We shall look at two major documents that seek to state the rights that all human beings have, namely the ‘UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ of 1948, and the papal encyclical already mentioned, Pacem in Terris of 1963.  But before we come to these, it will be valuable to spend a bit of time on how the language of duties and rights works – so that we can understand and use it clearly.

To begin, I’ll give explanations of three aspects of what the language of rights and duties means and how it should be used.  It is vital to pay attention to this because all too often this language is badly used.  We shall give more attention to misuse of it in a moment and also near the end of the unit (7.3.2).

(i)           ‘Human rights’

First, we need to say what it means to call some rights ‘human rights’. This term labels those rights which secure things for people that are so important for human living that they ought to be upheld always. In other words, they are rights people have simply because they are human.

As I put it above in relation to Pacem in Terris, respect for human rights secures for people the possibility of living in a way that is consistent with their human dignity.

If such rights are violated, people are being treated as though they are less than human.  They are not getting the minimum treatment that recognition of their human dignity would demand.

As this makes obvious, human rights matter immensely.  What is more important in people’s lives together than that their humanity is recognized and respected?

But the terminology of ‘human rights’ can be misused.  We need to be careful to avoid this.  The most obvious such abuse happens when people use it to make inflated assertions about what they happen selfishly to desire, rather than for what their dignity as persons means they need to be human.  For example, someone would misuse this language if they were to claim they had a human right to earn a relatively high income because this is what they’re used to, or a human right that their elderly parents’ needs shouldn’t impact on their own freedom and therefore that the state should meet them fully.

Later you will see what are specified to be human rights in the UN Universal Declaration and in Pacem in Terris.

(ii)         Moral rights and legal rights

Second, we need to be aware of the distinction between moral rights and legal rights.  In the way I have been using the language of rights so far in this unit, I have been talking about moral rights.  As the word implies, this language sees rights in terms of morality – of what it is right and wrong to do regardless of legal requirements.  It would be wrong to steal from people or assault them, even if these things were not illegal.   (As Catholic teaching sees it, this is because they are contrary to the God-given ‘natural law’, which you have studied if you have worked through Unit 6.)

So speaking of human rights as moral rights refers to what ought to be done for people, even if the law doesn’t require it.

When Pope John XXIII says that there is a human right to “means which are suitable for the proper development of life; these are primarily food, clothing, shelter, rest [and] medical care”, he is saying that in fact, as a matter of morality, people have that right, even if the law in some countries does nothing to secure it for people.

However, what his statement also implies is a call for this right to be upheld by law – that is to say, for this moral right to be made into a legal right.  (Pacem in Terris #60 makes this clear.)

In fact, many human rights have been made into legal rights, so that they are enforceable in court.  There is now a well­-developed branch of international law called ‘human rights law’.  In Europe, the ‘Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms’ is acknowledged as legally binding in the countries whose governments have ratified it, as the British government did as long ago as 1951.

Generally speaking, when people claim that there is a human right to x, y or z, let’s say to ‘freedom of speech and publication’, they are saying that all humans have a moral right to this, and that, in order to protect it adequately, it should be made into a legal right.

But it is very important to be aware that it is not obvious that all things that can be claimed to be human rights can be made into legal rights in effective ways.  The following things are credibly claimed to be human rights, I think, but it is not obvious that they can be easily be made subject to legal enforcement:

  • a right to be informed truthfully about public events (Pacem in Terris, #12)
  • a right to share in the benefits of culture (Pacem in Terris, #13)
  • a right to clear air.

There is always a real question to ask about whether a claimed human right can be made into a legal right.  This should never just be assumed.


End of 7.1.2

Go to 7.1.3 ‘Positive/benefit rights’ and ‘negative/freedom rights’

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  1. The translation quoted is that issued by the US Bishops (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 1963), accessible (20 Dec. 2013) at: http://www.clerus.org/bibliaclerusonline/en/index3.htm.  Subsequent quotations from Pacem in Terris will also be from this translation.