What comes before rights

What comes before our “right” to something? Our Declaration cites self-evident truths and our Constitutional system outlines fundamental rights from which the government is prohibited from making laws on, but how do we discover new rights?

Joseph Bottum writes about “the vocabulary of rights” and, critically, what has to come before them:

…rights-language was never intended to be all-consuming or all-encompassing; even in the Bill of Rights, it works as a final defense to prevent the most egregious of government actions. In front of rights were supposed to be things like manners, kindness, dignity, honor, and virtue—the moral vocabularies of ordinary human interaction, and the moral vocabularies we need to restore to have any hope of easing the madness of modern interconnectivity.

The writings of the moralists—from ancient times through the Enlightenment—are filled with warnings about the dangers of gossip and rumor. The old Anglican Book of Common Prayer asks us to reject “the leaven of malice,” and that word leaven is brilliantly chosen. A mean-spiritedness is mixed into the Internet, and like a yeast it bloats the whole thing, infecting all that it touches. In the 1630s, Descartes adapted a line from Ovid to become his personal motto: Bene vixit, bene qui latuit—“He lives well, who is well hidden.” The moral failures of modernity can be measured by that line, I think. Technological advances are supposed to be the glory of modern times—and they’ve brought us back to the old worries about gossip and rumor. We live best, nowadays, by keeping ourselves well hidden.

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