Instead of election analysis…

As I write this (Thursday morning), the results in the United States elections are still ‘too close to call’. So instead of an analysis of the aforementioned, let me reflect on something completely different, the idea of rights as entitlement.

Many of us assume that the world owes us a living. That society as a whole has a responsibility to each individual. After all, some religious people say, every person is made in the image and likeness of God. That’s in the Book of Genesis. So there!

The modern, secularised version of this argument is that all people have rights to such things as equal rights, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, etc. Theorists talk of negative rights (like freedom from discrimination on various grounds, from arbitrary and unjust treatment) and positive rights (freedom to pursue one’s life goals). Similarly, any rights claimed mean an obligation to others.

In practice, all too often people imagine that rights entail entitlements to meet their personal desires, often without apparently any concern for others – or indeed without a sense of responsibility that comes with such rights-based claims.

Take something as simple as the ‘right to work’. I demand a job, to earn an income that can sustain me decently. Perfectly reasonable. There is an implicit contract here. But often we violate this: what I am frequently saying is ‘Pay me’ though I do not keep up my side of the bargain. I claim a right without fulfilling my side of the obligation.

Scientifically, evolution teaches us that the fittest of a species survives. The unfit perish. There is no such thing in nature as rights, least of all entitlements. The species that survive are those best adapted to their environment. The best adapted are those who cooperate with each other and the environment. There is no space for slackers. They don’t survive.

It would be interesting to compare the concept of evolutionary survival with an entitlement theory of rights. The former seems to negate the latter. An entitlement mentality seems to contradict the lessons of survival evolution presents to us. Without a trade-off between rights claims and personal obligation, the pressure on a social system causes it to collapse from inside.

Some evolutionists would laugh even at this comparison, noting that rights and entitlements, among many other dearly held ideas, are a fantasy, a figment of our highly evolved consciousness.

What about rights claimed because we in the image and likeness of God? Leaving aside the proposal that this may be a case of creating God in our own image, perhaps something worth debating at another time (as we await the results of another election?), consider how our understanding of God may help us. God is Being in relationship: with creation, ourselves and Godself. In relationship, God makes demands but also delivers. That too is in the Bible. We cannot justify unqualified entitlement rights by appealing to God. 

Unless of course, projecting our more selfish sides onto the Creator, we see God as an all-powerful, petulant child demanding infinite entitlements from us. 

Fr Anthony Egan SJ

Fr Anthony Egan SJ (born Cape Town 1966; entered the Jesuits 1990; ordained 2002) has taught, full-time or part-time, at St Augustine College of South Africa, St John Vianney Seminary, Fordham University (on sabbatical) and the University of the Witwatersrand. The author/co-author of a number of books, book chapters, academic and popular articles, he is a correspondent for America magazine, a contributor to Worldwide and writes for He is also a commentator on local and international radio and television. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Helen Suzman Foundation. Extramural interests include Science Fiction, Theatre, Art and creative writing, including poetry.
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