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Our American Rights

Benefits and Burdens Go Together

“There’s no such thing as a free lunch” is an old American saying that has proved itself in the experience of all of us. We may not fork over the cash, but somebody does. And sometimes the free lunch is just the softener to get us to do something we wouldn’t otherwise do. My dad in his own way was a workbench philosopher, and his version was a bit cynical: “There’s always free cheese in a mouse trap,” Joe Povish used to say.

The French version was more elegant – noblesse oblige, meaning that privilege brings obligations. Dr. Leon Kennedy, long-time ethics professor at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit, put it this way: “Benefits and burdens go together.” Pope John Paul quotes the scholastic principle of justice dating from the middle ages: “For every right there is a corresponding duty.” If I have a right, it means, others have the duty to respect that right.

Americans for the most part know what their rights are. Our civil, political and religious rights are often spoken about, written about and remembered. In fact, we have become a “litigious society” because of the American inclination to sue for our rights, real or trivial or imagined. On the Fourth of July we celebrate the Declaration that states we are endowed by our Creator with “certain unalienable rights,” among which are “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, spell out the specifics of the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness our government is bound to respect. We are the envy of much of the world for the rights that we enjoy.

But how about the burdens that go along with our benefits as Americans? Without any desire to dampen enthusiasm over our rights, must we not ask ourselves from time to time how we’re taking care of our duties? Native Americans, Afro-Americans, Latino-Americans, and the more recent Asian-American immigrants have human dignity and human rights just as European-Americans do. Does the European-American majority, up to now the dominant class, recognize this dignity and these rights in all our dealings with them?

An article on pathologists and coroners stated that no one may be pronounced dead if the heartbeat is still there. An article on the unborn stated that by the second month of gestation the infant’s heart is already beating. How come the infant’s right to life can legally be ignored and he or she killed with a heart beating within?

These are two examples – racism and abortion, America’s two main injustices and sins. In both cases basic rights are being withheld by persons who have the duty to respect and uphold them.

In human society, benefits and burdens go together; and for every right you and I have there is a duty for others to respect it. We talk a lot about our rights; we have to think about our duties too.