Monday, 4 February 2013

Equal (and opposite) rights

Lincoln is a superb film, Spielberg’s historical masterpiece. And Daniel Day-Lewis proves, if more proof was needed, that he is one of the greatest actors of our time. But is Lincoln just a finely crafted work of entertainment? I think rather that, like the very best art, it contains principles which resonate with us today.

As Abraham Lincoln sits with the vice President of the Confederacy, the VP complains about the 13th amendment, crying that “all our traditions will be obliterated. We won't know ourselves anymore.” Nowadays it is de rigeur to claim that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery much at all, but about states’ rights. But this obscures the fact that those states’ rights under discussion included the right to enslave others.

Spielberg’s film cuts to the heart of this matter. For many at the time, the ability of white people to oppress and enslave black people was not only tradition, law, and economic necessity, but a natural law instituted by God, a fundamental human right, and constitutionally protected.

Nowadays we can see the fallacy of their arguments but at the time, as Lincoln said, “If you can look into the seeds of time, and say which grain will grow and which will not, speak then to me”. At the time, intelligent, well-meaning people argued that emancipation would be a disaster; for America, for white society, even for the black people themselves. They argued that emancipation was an act of tyranny by the ruling liberal majority over the people’s traditions, enshrined in custom and law for centuries as a way of life.

Lincoln’s opponents argued that emancipation would curtail the rights of white people everywhere. They argued that freedom would be restrained rather than increased. Breaking the chains of black people would chain the limbs of all white people. And, of course they were right. For a person to be free, it is necessary to restrain the attempts of others to remove that freedom.

Freedom is not absolute, since all rights in a society are in balance. Often our freedom to act infringes on another’s freedom to live. When this happens our freedom must be restrained by law. But Lincoln explained: “If we submit ourselves to law, even submit to losing freedoms, the freedom to oppress, for instance, we may discover other freedoms previously unknown to us.”

Some principles can be universal, and in questions of ethics, they often are. How do we balance one person’s freedom of conscience with another person’s freedom not to be discriminated against for who they are?

Strasbourg recently debated this question in a series of cases that had been referred to them. In one case they explained that: “On one side of the scales was Ms Eweida's desire to manifest her religious belief… On the other side of the scales was the employer's wish to project a certain corporate image.” They decided that in this case there was “no evidence of any real encroachment on the interests of others” and found in favour of Ms Ewieda.

Strasbourg compared this with another case where: “The reason for asking [Ms Chaplin] to remove the cross, namely the protection of health and safety on a hospital ward, was inherently of a greater magnitude than that which applied in respect of Ms Eweida”, and they found in favour of the hospital.

Strasbourg showed their working, their decisions were based on what rights were important enough to overrule others. And, where one person’s infringed another’s, whose should take precedence. It is a complicated question, these cases having been debated in multiple courts over many years now.

As in secular society, Christians do not find this an easy question either. In judicial matters Christians are given only very broad ethical guidelines in scripture and largely left to work it out for ourselves. Jesus tells us only to ‘treat others as we would be treated’, setting up the basis for this balancing act. For a modern example: if we want the right to dictate to a homosexual couple whether or not they can get married, would we give them the same right to obstruct our own marriages? How should we apply our ethical principles in this case, and in others?

I finish with another quote from Lincoln as he expounds on Euclid: “There it is, even in that two- thousand year old book of mechanical law. It is a self-evident truth that things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other. We begin with equality. That's the origin, isn't it? That balance, that's...that's fairness, that's justice.”

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