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Imposition of duties to give others their negative rights did not sit well with many whose values did not privilege the benefits associated with those rights. So the culture war broke out in the 1970s between religious conservatives who did not want to vindicate — or pay for — personhood preferences that conflicted with their values and those who sought to live happily in opposition to those conservative social and cultural conventions.
The gist of our culture war mostly has been a religion-light values conflict over negative rights associated with personhood — the positive right to an abortion being the very large exception to this observation.
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When the Hobby Lobby majority opinion used free exercise of religion — a positive right — to shield one set of personal values from another, it unwittingly opened a door to ending the culture war.
The opinion urges us to convert negative rights to positive ones using the principle of religious liberty and the related liberty of conscience that we should live free of too-intrusive value claims of others.
As a citizen, I have no constitutional duty to you to pay for or otherwise support how you live your life in line with your core transcendental beliefs. And, reciprocally, you as a citizen have no constitutional duty to me to pay for or otherwise support my living out my beliefs.
I may not like what you believe or do pursuant to your beliefs, but that is my problem to suffer through as long as you leave me alone with my views. And the same for you. I am to leave you alone with your beliefs.
And government is to be neutral, neither establishing your religious values on me nor mine on you.
My positive right is simply to get along without demanding that you fully affirm my personhood as it appears privately to me (though I may always hope for your good will). And you have a similar positive right to live without making a corresponding demand on me.
In our respective spheres of private rights, our values may never intersect. But in the public square, we owe each other a measure of respect for each other’s freedom of belief and its related sense of personhood. Civic virtue rises above the centrifugal pull of disparate religious points of view.
The culture war thus can end with both sides winning. Neither gets to trump the values of the other. The terms of the nonaggression pact are that no denigration, deconstruction, marginalization, sarcasm toward or psychic oppression of any other in the public square is justified. We have to learn to live and let live. We will have to find the strength of character so to do.
As much as possible, therefore, negative rights must be converted on our individual parts into positive rights. Henceforth, as we search for happiness in which our chosen personhood can flourish, we must shoulder the burden of reaching our goals by ourselves for ourselves.
By enhancing private rights of autonomous personal responsibility and so reducing our claims on the public, we minimize the social frictions arising from our many conflicts over deeply held values.
Prof. Zechariah Chafee once wrote that “your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins.”
Any insistence by you on exercise of a negative right that imposes an unsolicited duty on me must be defended by proof of an exceptional disability on your part and some claim of ethical obligation on my part arising from reasons not associated with your needs.
But I have a fair rejoinder that your disabilities are not as burdensome as they may seem to you and that the ethical obligations you would impose on me are not as compelling as you make them out to be.
Stephen B. Young, of St. Paul, is global executive director of the Caux Round Table, an international network of business leaders working to promote a moral capitalism.
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.