Rights or duties, which is more important?


The reason I ask this is because I’ve always had problems with American culture, which is an Enlightenment baby and perhaps promotes rights more strongly than any other society.

It could be claimed that the other side of the “rights coin” is duties – as in other people also have rights and I have a duty to protect their rights – but I think that in traditional societies, including the ancient Jewish tradition out of which our Catholic religion arose, stressed duties (e.g., the 10 Commandments, dharma, li, etc), with rights being the other side of the “duties coin” – I have duties, bec others have rights, and my rights derive out of others’ duties towards me.

The problem, I think, with an over-emphasis on rights in American culture is that “my rights” become very salient, and the duties towards others non-salient, leading to individualism, “each man is an island,” lack of concern or awareness of others & their needs and problems, victim blaming (it’s their own #%$^# fault), etc.

I think it is natural (of nature) to see things mainly from one’s own perspective and to one’s own benefit, which only grace and cultural conditioning (to consider duties more important than rights) can overcome so that we can become aware of the needs and rights of others and do the needful for them.

Any ideas on this?


First off, please don’t be so quick to see the negative in “American culture.” The USA and all things American get an unjust and exceedingly bad rap on this board - invariably by Americans who are ignorant of all the great things their nation has given the world, and who won’t leave when offered the chance.

With that as a preamble, it is important that people do their duties/responsibilities. That said, a good case can be made that “rights” are more important in the sense that those rights and their acknowledgement are ultimately more important to humanity as a whole than are duties.

Look, throughout a lot of human history, individuals had no real existence: the king did what he wanted. What ends in “I demand my rights!” Is an outgrowth of society recognizing the value of all people; their right to participate in government (I.e. Vote); their right to pursue their own goals (not merely the king’s); to receive some value for their labors; the right to certain protections (anywhere from labor unions to consumer protection laws) and a myriad of other rights, all of which have made the human condition exceedingly better.

These are all things in which the USA led the way: can you point to any other governing document that recognized people’s right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”? Without those rights, duties mean very little.


People like to point out that the USA is founded on Christian values. What they forget to add is Protestant. This is where everyone decides for themselves what the Bible says. There is no real duty other than what you think they are. This has led to the current state you are asking about. The only duty I have is to myself and my family, but only until they are adults.

I think that is why Pope Francis is popular in some quarters and not so much in others. He reminds us that we are responsible for all of our brothers and sisters. And that comes before our rights.


Clearly rights are more important. God gave me a right to life. That right trump all other rights.


According to the Baltimore Catechism.

Q. Why did God make you?
A. God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him for ever in heaven.


That perhaps sounds good on paper. The only problem is that those with more power, wealth and influence are in a much better position to press their rights, with the rights of the weak, infirm, powerless, unborn pretty much ignored if they interfere with the rights or whims of the powerful and strong.

“Thou shalt not kill,” a duty, however, applies to everyone one with both this world and the next repercussions if violated.

OTOH, “thou shalt not kill,” implies that people have a right to life.


God gave me life, clearly that right is important to him.


I dont sin by being alive. HOwever if I were to kill someone, that would be a sin.


He gave you life so you could serve Him. The two, right and duty, go hand-in-hand and can not be seperated.


You are in a sinful state when you are conceived. It is called Original Sin.


Rights and duties are linked. Rights are also negative and positive. A negative right is an individuals right not to be subjected to something. A positive right is an individual’s duty to provide something for another.

The negative right to not be killed which a man possess is a duty for all other men not to kill him. The positive right a man possesses to food and water is the duty of all other men to provide that or not to deprive it. You could look at a right as coming from the duty of others or a duty coming from the rights of others.

I don’t know that one is more important than the other. What I do think is that selfishness leads to an increased expectation that others provide or serve you. These expectations get made good by conceiving them as rights with the associated duties. And yes, America is full of selfish people and this isn’t limited to just the rich.

Of course the Faith approaches this more from the duty side. It encourages us to deny our own rights and serve others. I don’t see this being the thinking of the American polity.


Good points & I totally agree.

Some scholars have contrasted a “rights-based” ethics (modern, Western societies) with a “duty-based” ethics (traditional societies).

I think our problem today is we are pretty much locked into “rights-based” thinking…and religion (any religion coming from the past) has a really uphill battle to get folks into a more “duty-based” ethics.

What people do instead it go further and further with “rights” thinking, which is okay by me as a way to help solve our abandonment of “duty-based” ethics. So we have women’s rights, children’s rights, rights of the unborn, rights of future generations, animal rights, the rights of nature. These are important corrections, even tho those with more power and wealth will be able to press their rights over the rights of others, esp those without a voice or “standing.”

I got involved in writing about “food rights,” which ordinarily would be considered a positive right (people have the right to food) rather than a negative right (people have the right not to be killed). However, some argued that it is a negative right in the sense that people need food to live and people have a right not to have their food taken away, destroyed, or prevented from being available to them. The right to life has no meaning at all, if people don’t have a right to food, water, healthy air (that doesn’t cause their death), etc.

So I guess my preference would be to argue and strive for a duty-based ethics, but barring that, then we need to take rights much further so that people in actuality have a right to life, not just in the abstract.


I see two problems with the push for rights. First off it tends to make the issue one of forcing people to do something rather than them willingly doing it. For instance children’s rights versus parental obligations. We should want to be good parents. We shouldn’t want to be just good enough. But the rights approach makes it more that way. And the state ends up filling in the gaps. It is not changing society by persuasion but by force.

Secondly it tends to get things backwards. Animal rights is an example. The problem with mistreating animals is not chiefly in the suffering of the animals but the degradation of the person who is cruel. The cruel person harms his own soul through his acts. People recognize this when they say a person who is cruel to animals will go on to being cruel to people. And at least for now that is still generally considered worse. And that is because man has a greater dignity. Which is why the chief problem in animal cruelty is the moral evil in the man.


Our wealth gives us a right to life. Sadly, twenty thousand children will die today as a result of grinding poverty, starvation and preventable disease. Did God give them a right to life also?

Do we have a duty towards the starving millions?


When people commit crime or endanger others, then some force may be required…tho like you I tend to admire the pacifist stance (I won’t know if I am one unless I die for that principle).

Secondly it tends to get things backwards. Animal rights is an example. The problem with mistreating animals is not chiefly in the suffering of the animals but the degradation of the person who is cruel. The cruel person harms his own soul through his acts. People recognize this when they say a person who is cruel to animals will go on to being cruel to people. And at least for now that is still generally considered worse. And that is because man has a greater dignity. Which is why the chief problem in animal cruelty is the moral evil in the man.

It’s interesting that in the olden days, as exemplified in the Bible, people in their traditional “duties-based” code of ethics were actually concerned about the suffering of animals, so that in killing them for food, it had to be done in humane ways with least suffering.

I remember being concerned about the animals that came to my dinner plate as a small kid, and my mother assured me they were killed in a humane way. I’ve since learned something different.

Jeremy Bentham, utilitarianism, speaks about if they can suffer, they should have the right not to be made to suffer – utilitarianism.com/jeremybentham.html.

What is great about the “rights of nature,” is that this can be used to actually help people avoid LULUs (locally unwanted land uses) that cause them serious health hazards by polluting their water or air. Otherwise, the rights to property trump the rights of people to have healthy water or air…that’s just the way our U.S. system of justice has evolved.

Corporations (which cannot die, but can reincarnate by dissolving, hiding their assets, and reconstituting under a different name) are considered to be people with rights to property and profits that trump the rights of people to life or health. It’s a sad state of affairs, but some are now using “rights of nature” and striving to bring back “rights of communities to self-determination” (which have been lost over the decades and centuries) and are finding some bits of hope and success.


Rights are much more important than obligations.


I have a right to life and no one has a right to take that away from me without just cause. However I am not obligated to serve God as I have free will.


Which has nothing to do with rights being more important than duty.


Social Contract Theory

Social contract theory, nearly as old as philosophy itself, is the view that persons’ moral and/or political obligations are dependent upon a contract or agreement among them to form the society in which they live. Socrates uses something quite like a social contract argument to explain to Crito why he must remain in prison and accept the death penalty. However, social contract theory is rightly associated with modern moral and political theory and is given its first full exposition and defense by Thomas Hobbes. After Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau are the best known proponents of this enormously influential theory, which has been one of the most dominant theories within moral and political theory throughout the history of the modern West. In the twentieth century, moral and political theory regained philosophical momentum as a result of John Rawls’ Kantian version of social contract theory, and was followed by new analyses of the subject by David Gauthier and others. More recently, philosophers from different perspectives have offered new criticisms of social contract theory. In particular, feminists and race-conscious philosophers have argued that social contract theory is at least an incomplete picture of our moral and political lives, and may in fact camouflage some of the ways in which the contract is itself parasitical upon the subjugations of classes of persons.

Table of Contents

  1. Socrates’ Argument

  2. Modern Social Contract Theory a. Thomas Hobbes
    b. John Locke
    c. Jean-Jacques Rousseau

  3. More Recent Social Contract Theories a. John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice
    b. David Gauthier

  4. Contemporary Critiques of Social Contract Theory a. Feminist Arguments i. The Sexual Contract
    ii. The Nature of the Liberal Individual
    iii. Arguing from Care

b. Race-Conscious Argument

  1. Conclusion
  2. References and Further Reading



I think when you look at rights in Catholic thought, your rights are inferred not from another’s duties, but from your own duties. Because you have a duty to do X, you not only have the right to do X, but you also have a right to Y and Z, which are reasonably necessary to fulfill the duty of X. Many rights are even simply a matter of man’s need to act according to his own nature that the Creator has given him.

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