Some years ago, my oldest daughter proclaimed that she had a “right” to her rights. While considering her plea, I found myself drawn to an Individual Choice Model once proposed by the late economist, Paul Heyne. According to Heyne, “all social phenomena emerge from the choices individuals make in response to expected benefits and costs to themselves.” At its core, the model presents three elements: choice, action, and cost.
The first, individual choice, appears quite American. Indeed, when discussing this model with college students, I have yet to witness one young person deny that they hold the sacred right-to-choose. And so, I raise my hands and holler: “Power to the people. May you choose until the sun sets.”
Secondly, I point to the reality that their choice has been advanced by way of an action. For example, if they are smokers, they will have made the decision (choice) to purchase a package of cigarettes having precise words printed upon it.
SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING: Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, Heart Disease, Emphysema, And May Complicate Pregnancy.
Continuing with this example, I proceed as though a prosecutor and ask for a student representative willing to be my designated smoker. With a representative chosen, I begin.
Have you willingly chosen to purchase and unwrap a package of cigarettes such as these, removed one, afixed a flame to its end, and consumated the process by the act of smoking?
After careful consideration and with his fellow classmates serving as solemn witnesses, I once again ask my smoker whether this is true and if he continues to remain comfortable with his choice and action. Now having received an affirmative nod, we proceed into the future whereby this smoker has contracted lung cancer as the Surgeon General warned. Sadly, we have arrived at our cost, and this smoker must now decide whether to internalize or externalize this unfortunate and tragic reality. If he chooses to internalize this situation, he will have accepted that this cost has been arrived at by and through a series of choices and actions. In other words, he will have accepted responsibility for his decisions. At the other end of the spectrum, he may also choose to externalize these costs and deny responsibility for his behavior. Instead, he blames outside parties such as the tobacco company for his predicament. They have not only led him to addiction, but also affliction. As such, they must pay.
By use of this one example, many others come to mind. And from this perch, it is easy to see how we have gone astray as a society by becoming champions of personal choice as our “premier” and heavenly right. In doing so, I wonder whether we have neglected to note that every individual right carries with it a responsibility that also extends to others? After all, are we not our brother’s keeper? Or, have we instead allowed our individual rights and actions to run roughshod over the lives of others?
Near the end of the 2012 Vice-presidential debate, the “Catholic” question (on abortion) finally arrived. With the moderator desiring each Catholic legislator’s opinion regarding the practice of abortion (as though the murder of innocent human life is subject to opinion), Joseph Biden (D-DE) noted that “he would not impose his religious values upon others” whereas Paul Ryan (R-WI) declared that a Romney administration would “uphold the right-to-life in all cases other than rape, incest, or the life of the mother.”
As I listened to this political gnashing of teeth, I was drawn to Blessed John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae. There, he noted that:
…the roots of the contradiction between the solemn afirmation of human rights and their tragic denial in practice lies in a notion of freedom which exalts the isolated individual in an absolute way, and gives no place to solidarity, to openness to others and service of them. While it is true that the taking of life not yet born or in its final stages is sometimes marked by a mistaken sense of altruism and human compassion, it cannot be denied that such a culture of death, taken as a whole, betrays a completely individualistic concept of freedom, which ends up by becoming the freedom of the strong against the weak who have no choice to submit. (pp. 36-37)
Continuing, this future saint declared that every man is his “brother’s keeper” (Gen 4:9) because God has entrusted us to one another by a freedom that is inherently relational.
In returning to our choice model, we are wise to note that our individual rights, choices, and actions are inextricably tied to others. As relational beings, we are not islands unto ourselves. Rather, with each of our choices impacting and imposing costs upon others, perhaps it is best that our actions procede with gentleness. And from that procession, may peace flow in such a way that we not only build up ourselves, but the entire Body of Christ.
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