There are certain things that we need and desire. Among these is love and sex. I conjoin two words, but I mean it to refer to a single whole, the embodied connection of affection, commitment, and pleasure that comes in the mutual giving of two people of themselves to each other. That. It’s a longing that has deep roots in biology and human experience. It seems a good candidate for a necessary component of a good life.
The problem comes when that truth – that a good and complete life includes love and sex – combines with our dominant moral discourse, the discourse of rights. Consider Martha Nussbaum, a philosopher at the University of Chicago who has spent the last couple of decades thinking about the links between development and human rights. She has produced something that she calls capabilities theory. The idea is that when we think about what society owes us, what our fundamental rights are, we should think in terms of the conditions that create the basic capabilities needed to live a good and fully human life.
I like Nussbaum’s approach because it tries to take seriously the idea of living a good life and then marry it to the language of human rights and multiculturalism. It’s a good test case that lets us see some of the basic problems inherent in some of our fundamental ways of seeing the moral universe. Among the basic human rights that Nussbaum outlines is the capacity for sexual pleasure and love.
The problem is that this leads to Elliot Rodger. Not directly of course. As near as I can tell, Nussbaum is a thoroughly decent human being. She no doubt has nothing but horror for the evil of Rodger’s actions, and her work certainly cannot be offered as a justification for anything that he did. There is nothing to suggest that he knew anything about her theories.
Nussbaum, however, does conjoin the enjoyment of love and sex with rights, and that is a problem. Elliot Rodger, if we are to believe him, felt that he had been wronged by women because he was a virgin. He wanted sex and it had been denied him. Reading a transcript of his final YouTube rant one gets a sense of a boy with a profound sense of entitlement that had been disappointed. He was the victim of injustice taking his just retribution on an unjust world. Justice. Justice. Justice.
It’s an extremely twisted view of the world. It is the sense of sexual entitlement that drives date rape and ruffies. It’s also not an entirely insane response to a world that ties up sex with the good life and offers us little in the way of moral discourse beyond the category of rights. To be sure, the idea of rights has good responses to the twisted moral logic of Elliot Rodger’s self-pity. Rape and murder violate the rights of others.
But this response misses the deeper sickness of Rodger’s rant. Rodger’s virginity was not the result of a tragic conflict between his right to love and sex and the rights of women to be free of non-consensual sexual contact. The deeper sickness of Elliot Rodger was his belief that he had a right to love and sex. What motivated him was a belief that he was entitled to love and sex. It is the condemnation of this sense of entitlement that is missed if we see the evil of his actions entirely in terms of violating the rights of others. We miss the evil of his underlying moral motivation.
We also miss something if we reduce Rodger’s attitudes to some kind of undifferentiated misogyny. His final rant was clearly soaked in misogyny, but seeing misogyny as some primal evil that accounts for Rodger’s crimes misses the roots of his sense of entitlement. Those roots lie in part in the limitations created by the concept of rights. Rodger thought love and sex were part of a good life. He thought he was entitled to a good life. Therefore, he was entitled to love and sex. His rights had been violated by women that refused to give him love and sex. He was not a manifestation of some primal misogyny. Rather, his misogyny grew out of the joining of sex and love with rights and entitlement. It’s not, however, a surprising link given moral language that Rodger had available. How else was he going to think about the good life if not in the language of rights?
If this account of Rodger’s motivation is right, it suggests a profound limit on the ability of rights language to make sense of living a good life. If love and sex are part of a good life – and I think that they are – then it follows that one cannot have a right to a good life. Love and sex are always offered by a particular person, and we have no claim on the love and sex of any particular person or of all people in general. No one owes us love and sex. It cannot be a right. It can only be a gift, and it makes no sense to say that you have a right to a gift.
Ultimately, this is why Christianity strikes me as a much more powerful and realistic way of seeing the human condition. The Atonement is that which is most necessary. Without it we are lost to death and sin and misery. Yet Christ’s Atonement is not a right. It is a gift. It is not something that we are owed; it is something that we are given. Oddly, sex and love have the same structure. They are instances of grace not of rights. Elliot Rodger is a hideous example of where the attempt to recast grace as entitlement can lead.
There is, however, something profoundly unsettling about realizing that ultimately the good life is a matter of grace rather than of rights. It means that we are fundamentally vulnerable. Even at the conceptual level there is no moral entitlement to a good life. It opens up the possibility of a tragic world. To be sure, the language of human rights can be filled with tragedy. Rights are primarily articulated in the face of their violation. But the tragic vision of human rights is ultimately a matter of injustice. Grace, however, suggests that tragedy need not be an injustice. Sometimes it is just a tragedy, an evil where we call for a balm in Gilead rather than the apocalyptic righting of wrongs.