Rights, duties, and freedom

Carol Reed’s classic film The Third Man, based on a story by Graham Greene, takes place in post-war Vienna where Harry Lime is operating a criminal scheme involving tainted medicine. Lime kills sick people for money.

Money. We all need it, some of us have enough of it, and many don’t. Franklin Roosevelt wanted America to recognize that, beyond the basics enumerated in the Bill of Rights, human beings also have the right to a decent home, security in old age and sickness, and the right to health care and an education. In other words, one’s civil rights need to be augmented by economic rights. Roosevelt’s New Deal was influenced by Father John Ryan, whose tireless efforts for working men and women stands today as an important milestone in the American Catholic social justice tradition. Pope Pius XI recognized his contribution by making him a domestic prelate (a sort of honorary bishop).

But where there are rights, there must also be duties. Your right is my obligation to respect and, according to my situation, provide for that right, and vice versa. My taxes, for example, help pay for Medicaid. Politicians devoted to the individualist philosophy of Ayn Rand disagree and want to reduce the scope of rights, in the famous phrase of Thomas Hobbes, simply to freedom from force and fraud. As for economic security, you’re on your own.

The Christian social justice tradition, however, holds that without a minimum of financial resources, one is inevitably the victim of force. Those who view social justice merely as the freedom of the individual from constraints, with no duty to support the common good, are not that different from Harry Lime, who cheated sick patients out of wholesome medicine to enrich himself. Harry Lime took the direct and illegal route to riches by diluting medicine; today, it is more common to find corporate plunder occurring through legal channels (see, for example, the BBC report, “Pharmaceutical industry gets high on fat profits”.

We are still trying to figure out how society can fairly distribute its wealth so that everyone’s freedom will be enhanced. Movie producers put up an investment so that the artists and laborers can be paid for the work they do. Alexander Korda was the producer for The Third Man and the great showman Orson Welles played the villain Harry Lime. The tension between the artists and laborers who make the film, and the producers who supply the funds is, of course, legendary. Producers want their investment to make money for them while the artists want the financial freedom to create. On the set of Reed’s film, this tension evoked a bon mot from Welles, who told Korda, “I wish the Pope had made you a Cardinal.” “Why is that?” Korda asked. “Because then we would only have to kiss your ring,” Welles answered.

There is a sense in which every human being is a creative artist, intended by God to make something of himself or herself, according to the gifts and circumstances of life. Everyone, therefore, needs the financial basics to achieve the creation that is one’s authentic self, free not only from force and fraud, but from poverty, homelessness and preventable illness. Our kiss should be that of genuinely free men and women.

David Hammond teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program.

One thought on “Rights, duties, and freedom

  1. Hello Professor Hammond, I knew the post was written by you before I finished reading it! After reading your post, it makes me wonder (and also sad) that we no longer have political leadership fighting for social justice and the common good. It’s too bad that we know longer have “Presidents” and politicians who are really “for the people”. I shouldn’t be so bold in my generalizations, so I’ll concede that there may still be a few out there….somewhere. It appears that Roosevelt and Aquinas pretty much agreed on the definition of what a law is – “nothing less than an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community, and then promulgated” (ST I-II, Q 90, A 4, co).

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