113. Thus far we have considered human acts in their relation to our final beatitude, and the natural law as directing these acts to their appointed end. We shall next proceed to apply this law to man's rights and duties, In the present book we shall treat of the rights and duties of man viewed as an individual. In the last book we shall treat of his social rights and duties.
114. To say that a man has a right to a thing, means that he has a certain power over it. Evidently, however, physical power does not of itself constitute a right. The highwayman's power over the traveler's money gives him no right thereto. A right, then, belongs to the moral order. It is an inviolable moral power belonging to one man, which, therefore, all other men are bound to respect.
115. In every right four things are to be taken into account: (a) the subject, i. e., the person possessing the right; (b) the term, including all those who are bound to respect the right; (c) the title, or reason on which the right is founded; (d) the matter, or that to which the subject has a right. The matter may be my own act or the act of another person; that is, I may have the right to perform a certain act or to require the performance or the omission of an act on the part of another. Thus in N.'s right to the house which he owns, N. himself is the subject, all other persons constitute the term, his payment of the purchase money agreed upon is the title, and the ownership of the house is the matter. He has a right to occupy the house, to prevent others from dwelling in it, or to require the party who leases it to pay the stipulated rent.
116. A right possessed by one person involves, on the part of another or of others, the obligation to respect that right. This obligation is called a duty. We may therefore define duty in the abstract as a moral bond or obligation of doing or omitting certain acts in favor of another person. The act itself that ought to be done or omitted is the concrete duty. Every duty then supposes a corresponding right, and every right a duty: right and duty are correlative and inseparable. Hence brute animals can have no rights, for they have no duties or moral obligations, since by their irrational nature they are incapable of voluntary acts. We are under obligation to abstain from cruelty to animals, not because they have rights, but because such conduct is unworthy of our rational nature. Insane persons and infants have rights radically, which all are bound to respect; yet by reason of their mental helplessness they are exempt from performing duties.
117. Every duty or obligation supposes that some one who has power to bind the consciences of men has imposed the obligation. Now, moral acts, we know from the preceding book, are such as are in conformity with the moral law, which has God for its author. As every moral obligation is necessarily associated with a moral act, it depends, immediately or remotely, for its binding force upon the moral law and the Divine Author of the law. Therefore, the true rights and duties of man come from God; and they cannot be correctly understood if considered apart from their dependence upon God.
118. Rights and duties are inseparable; yet it may be asked, which is prior? Do the duties which rest upon us precede in the order of nature and of supposition the corresponding rights, or is the converse true? 1. Absolutely, or in the formal concept of right and duty, right is prior to duty. Right is a moral power existing in one person, which gives rise to an obligation in another. Consequently, the right is the cause of the obligation, and every cause is prior, in the order of nature and of supposition, to its effect. 2. Since God cannot be bound or limited, He has no duties towards His creatures, although He possesses sovereign rights over all creation. 3. Hence, man has no rights with regard to God; he has duties only. These duties, which God has imposed, confer upon him a right to the means required to attain the end of his existence. Thus man's dependence upon God is a duty prior to all his rights, and, at the same time, it is the source of all his rights. Once God has deigned to bestow upon us the right of existence, He owes it to His own infinite attributes to perfect His gift by endowing us with all the rights necessary for our existence as men. 4. A man's God-given rights impose obligations or duties on other men to respect his rights. Hence, in the relations of men with one another, right is prior to duty.
119. Rights are variously divided into connatural and acquired, alienable and inalienable, perfect and imperfect. 1. Connatural rights are those which are inseparable from the nature of man as a person. Such are the rights to life and limb, to personal integrity, to liberty of action within just limits, to specific equality as a member of the human family. Acquired rights come to a man in virtue of his own exertions, or of acts done by others in his favor; for example, rights to property, to franchise, to office, are acquired rights. 2. Inalienable rights are those which a man cannot renounce or transfer to another, because they are necessary to the attainment of his last end. All other rights are called alienable. "We hold these truths to be self-evident," says our Declaration of Independence, "that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among them are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." 3. Perfect or strict rights are of such a kind that the corresponding duties are matters of commutative justice. Imperfect rights are not so definite; they are founded not on justice but on claims of gratitude or of honor, or on some similar title.
120. Rights in conflict. Rights cannot strictly be said to conflict. We may meet with conflicting claims to the same thing, or apparent rights in conflict, but of these only one can be a real right. For, by the nature of a right, its existence in one person imposes an obligation upon all others to respect that right. Consequently, conflicting rights is a contradiction in terms, because "I am bound to respect something" and "I am not so bound" are evidently contradictory propositions. When two claims conflict, the right disputed must be decided to belong to the claimant that has the true title, or at least the better title. Such a decision is not always easy, especially as men are naturally prepossessed in favor of their own interests, and on this account they are often forced to make use of arbitration and law courts.
121. The following principles regarding conflicting claims are obvious: of two claims otherwise equal that should prevail --
1. Which is more necessary for the attainment of man's last end: thus, the right to life takes precedence of that to property. Hence, if a man who is suffering extreme poverty has instant need of food, he possesses the right to supply his need from the provisions of others who are not in equal or greater need.
2. Which concerns the good of the greater number. For this reason, the common good takes precedence of private good, as when a citizen has to expose his life in defense of the State.
3. Which is more probably genuine: thus, a man possessing an object which he acquired in good faith can continue to hold it till a better claim be proved.
122. Various classes of duties correspond to the various classes of rights: to the natural rights of one person correspond the natural duties of others; to acquired rights, adventitious duties; to imperfect rights, imperfect duties. Positive duties, which are based on positive or affirmative precepts of the law, oblige us to perform certain acts; while negative duties, which are based on negative precepts, oblige us to abstain from certain acts. Positive duties do not require us to act at every moment, but only at certain times; negative duties, however, oblige us to abstain at all times from the forbidden acts.
We have duties to God, to ourselves, and to our neighbor. These three classes of duties we shall examine severally in the three following chapters.
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