Thursday, August 19, 2010

Can All Rights Be Abused?

By Mike Dorf

In my two posts on the controversy surrounding the planned Park51/Cordoba House (here and here), I noted how the debate has shifted from whether the organizers have a right to build it (to which I believe the answer is blindingly obviously yes) to whether it is wise for them to do so.  I am tempted to say that the answer to the second question is entirely a matter of tactics for the planners rather than a fit topic for outsiders to speculate about.

Consider an analogy.  Suppose a gay couple are vacationing in a country that is generally gay-friendly but has pockets in which people are offended by homosexuality.  (Such offense could be on religious grounds, as many Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditionalists view same-sex sexual activity as sinful.  I understand--based on 30 seconds of Google research--that Hindu and Buddhist attitudes can be more flexible.)  Should the couple closet themselves when passing through places where their being out would be deemed offensive?  I guess my view is that this might well be a sensible tactic for avoiding harm, but the mere fact that others will, without sound justification, be offended, does not create a moral obligation on the couple to hide their orientation.  Perhaps it would be supererogatory to closet themselves, but this seems to me more in the domain of manners than morals.  I think I probably feel the same way about secular women veiling when entering Muslim countries in which that is the norm.  If veiling is required by law, then the question of whether there is a moral obligation to veil reduces to whether there is a moral obligation to obey an unjust law--except that there might be a greater such obligation when dealing with the laws of a foreign country to which one voluntarily travels.  Anyway, there can be a great many complications here, and I simply mean to surface them rather than to resolve them.  Returning to Park51/Cordoba House, I don't think that there is any moral obligation to refrain from giving offense, when the taking of offense is unreasonable, unexplained, or, as here, both.

But that is not to say that it is difficult to describe cases in which it would be poor judgment--or much worse--to exercise a right.  The First Amendment provides the most familiar examples: Nazis and Klansmen have a right to march to express their viewpoints; no right-thinking person believes that they act wisely in doing so.  Or, to take an example from the Supreme Court's current docket, in Snyder v. Phelps, the Court will decide whether the civil verdict against the Phelps family and the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) violates the First Amendment.  I am confident that no Justice who finds that their speech was protected will thereby be endorsing the idea of showing up at the funeral of a fallen Marine with signs saying "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" and "God Hates Fags."  (The fallen Marine, Mathew Snyder, was not gay, but the WBC believes that 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are God's punishment for America's failure to address sin.  Lovely.)  The argument in the case will likely focus on whether there is a captive audience doctrine applicable to funerals and if so, whether it applies given the proximity limits that were applied to the protesters.  The argument almost certainly will not focus on whether the WBC's speech was wise or valuable.

It is tempting to say that all constitutional rights have this character: They can be exercised wisely or unwisely. But I think that's not necessarily so.  First, consider the "wisely" prong.  Someone could think that abortion is always wrong but that it is nonetheless properly the subject of constitutional protection.  I have a number of Catholic friends who take a position close to this: They say that they themselves would never have an abortion (the friends in question are women) but that they nonetheless believe government should not foreclose the option.  So my friends take the view (not unreasonably, I think, given their various commitments) that the right  to abortion really should be a legal right but that as a matter of morality, its exercise is always wrong.

Now consider the other half of the hypothesis: Are there rights that cannot be unwisely exercised?  Some strong supporters of the right to bear arms (understood post-Heller/McDonald as an individual right)  think that all people who are eligible to carry firearms should carry firearms.  I have heard this view expressed on occasion and it follows logically (if not inexorably) from the view that an armed populace deters crime.  I'm not taking a position on whether an armed populace does deter crime; I'm simply saying that if you think that, you could well think that everyone eligible to carry firearms has a moral duty to his fellow citizens to carry a firearm.

Finally, notwithstanding the foregoing examples, for the most part I do think it true that constitutional rights can be exercised wisely or unwisely, responsibly or irresponsibly, morally or immorally.  Note that in both of my examples--abortion as a right that it is never right to exercise and firearms possession as a right that it is always right to exercise--I had to posit someone with rather idiosyncratic views.  I suspect that most supporters of the abortion right and of the right to possess firearms think that there are circumstances in which their respective exercise is wise/morally permissible/morally obligatory, and other circumstances in which their respective exercise is unwise/morally impermissible.


Unknown said...

What about voting? I think a better argument can be made that all those eligible to vote have a duty to do so, at least compared to bearing arms.

On the flip side, can the right to vote ever be abused? Obviously when I say vote, I mean in a legal manner, not voting dead people.

Unknown said...

It might be a good idea just to tick through all the rights we have. Take for example the right to have an attorney. Can you ever abuse that? The only way I can think of is if you repeatedly hire and fire attorneys to delay a trial.

AF said...

This post seems to conflate two questions: (1) whether constitutional rights can be exercised unwisely and (2) under what circumstances are public officials and/or participants in public debates justified in criticizing private individuals for the exercise of constitutional rights.

You seem to be assuming that if a right can be exercised unwisely as opposed to just tactlessly or rudely, than it is appropriate for people to criticize its exercise as long as they don't deny the existence of the right or attempt to violate it. I'm not sure that's right. Particularly for public officials, it strikes me that criticizing individuals for exercising their rights should be approached with extreme caution, even when the official might legitimately consider the exercise of the right to be unwise or even morally objectionable.

Michael C. Dorf said...

Raffles: As to voting, one could reasonably think that not voting is sometimes a legitimate form of protest. Likewise, one can think that it's unwise to vote for a particular candidate--or even immoral if the candidate proposes to do something sufficiently awful.

AF: I did not intend to take a position on when it is appropriate for politicians or others to criticize others for the way they exercise their rights. I agree that the answer will depend on context and that there can be the dangers you describe.

AF said...

Professor Dorf:

In that case, I'm not sure I understand your apparent distinction between matters of "tactics" or "manners" on one hand, and "poor judgment" or "unwise" exercises of constitutional rights on the other.

Certainly it is poor judgment and unwise to use bad tactics and bad manners.

Michael C. Dorf said...

I'm not trying to be sneaky or slick here. I was drawing a distinction between manners and morals. It's bad manners not to say "thank you" when someone holds a door open for you but few people would say it's immoral. (Perhaps someone might say that bad manners are slightly immoral, but I'll put that aside.)

In response to your earlier comment, which seems to me quite orthogonal to this latest query, I was just trying to clarify that I was talking about what moral judgments individuals might REACH, without addressing the further question of whether and when they would be justified in publicly STATING that someone else was acting immorally or even impolitely. (I'm using all caps because I can't get italics to work in the comments, not because I'm trying to scream.)

AF said...

I didn't mean to suggest you were being sneaky or slick, nor did I mean to be nitpicky. The common thread of my two comments was an attempt to understand what was at stake in your manners/morals distinction and how it related to the mosque debate.

Random Dude in Camouflage said...

@ AF

I understand what you are saying, and I would tend to agree that the paradox of a right being immoral or unwise draws confusion in my own mind as well.

In this particular case, my opinion is that no congregation of worship should be placed in a position where it may degrade the historical value of the WTC. My reasoning is due to the fact that Christians, Muslims, Jews, Bahai, and other faiths were all presumably represented during the tragedy. This is not to say that it should be prohibited, but the founders of any place of worship should also consider the faith of visitors, victims, and suspects alike.

Simply my opinon here.

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