If we created a timeline to mark out the evolving relationship between rights and duties, we would see that, for ancient man, duties were predominant, with rights only coming into play in a subordinate or derived sense. In many cases we struggle to find any concept of rights whatsoever.
Recognizing the immanence of the divine order, an order which is essentially supra-individual, traditional societies always stressed the obligations (duties) implied by this recognition.
We can also recall what we said above regarding the discovery of the self, and point out that it is very difficult to accentuate rights over duties when you have not yet emphasized the individual to whom the rights supposedly belong. It requires a mentality of individualism, out of touch with the transcendent in order, for the illusion of rights to take conceptual form.
Thus, we find that in the modern world, rights are always ‘individual rights’. This is conspicuous and indicates a certain anti-communitarian frame of mind, since even if we allowed the existence of rights, would it not follow that there are also collective rights, rights belonging to the community, and that these could not be ignored? And yet they are ignored and even denied.
The ancient world, dominated by a sense of the transcendent, was not dominated so much by a search for special ‘prerogatives’ as much as it was interested in acquiring the knowledge of the divine and in conforming to the Divine Will insofar as it was known. This implies a concern for justice first and foremost, since justice is the imprint of the divine will on the structure of things. We see more discussion about the nature of justice in ancient literature and little to none about the individual and his liberties.
Traditional man spoke of obligations owed first to God, and then, by proxy or derivation, to king, community, and neighbor. It is this relationship between rights and duties which St. John XXIII tried to emphasize in the modern context, to no avail:
The natural rights of which We have so far been speaking are inextricably bound up with as many duties, all applying to one and the same person. These rights and duties derive their origin, their sustenance, and their indestructibility from the natural law, which in conferring the one imposes the other…it follows that in human society one man’s natural right gives rise to a corresponding duty in other men; the duty, that is, of recognizing and respecting that right. Every basic human right draws its authoritative force from the natural law, which confers it and attaches to it its respective duty. Hence, to claim one’s rights and ignore one’s duties, or only half fulfill them, is like building a house with one hand and tearing it down with the other.
If the balance was once in favor of duties over rights, we can say that during the phase of the discovery of the self and the rising tide of egoism, this balance was reversed. We will recall how this tide was temporarily stalled by St. Thomas, who, through his synthesis, tried to create a harmonious fusion of right and duty, acknowledging both the outward and inward demands of divine justice. In Thomism there is a hierarchy of the demands of justice, each taking care to acknowledge the various aspects of reality.
On this subject, we must be extremely careful not to read contemporary concepts into medieval philosophy. St. Thomas spoke of right (singular) but his meaning was very far from what people have in mind today when they use the same term. The Thomistic right is “the object of justice”. Such a right is not demanded for oneself but is always “a work that is adjusted to another person.” In short, the rights of Thomism (if it is even legitimate to speak of them in the plural) were social and although they implied an aspect of individuality they were not characteristically individualistic.
Unfortunately, Thomism proved unflattering in comparison to the humanism of the Enlightenment, with its naïve optimism about political systems and its denial of fallen nature. It could not last.
There is also the problem of popular psychology. ‘The man in the street’ is mostly untouched by subtle philosophizing, however precise and true it may be. If a movement captures the popular mind and can influence it sufficiently, it matters little what the Church teaches or what the academics debate. Ideas, over time, trickle down, but only in part and academic terminology in pop culture is more a result of pseudo-adoption and conversion than it is proof of public understanding of some theory.
During the period of the Enlightenment, the average European came to perceive any form of subordination to any authority as a species of injustice, and the old rhetoric about duty and hierarchy became distasteful in comparison to the security and respect promised by the new theory of rights. And so, as the goal of justice fell out of favor, Europe turned away from the old authorities. First, it turned from religious authorities, namely the Church (via the Reformation), and then from the traditional political authorities as a whole (via the Revolutions), and eventually turned away from the concept of objective law altogether, in favor of the ambulatory law of democratic regimes (political and economic Liberalism).
We could say that the history of the concept of right is a story of the revolt against objectivity, for duty is the objective expression of that which the right attempts to achieve from a subjective point of view. When duty fell out of favor and rights rose victorious, it should not have been surprising that this came hand-in-hand with a disdain for all external authorities that claimed to possess objective truth, anyone that dared make claims to universality, any philosophy that promoted awareness of the supra-individual order of things, religion most of all, since religion pursues and promotes the most rigorous objectivity.
The traditional world saw hierarchies everywhere, including within the good itself. There were higher and lower goods, and then there was the Absolute Good, which was God. This is the result of seeing all things in their proper relations. Such a view instills a sense of intentional ordering to reality. To nature, by God, and to society, by man, in imitation of God and in accordance with His precepts.
When hierarchy is denied, what follows is not a levelling (as egalitarian rhetoric would have us believe), but more often a reversal of the proper relationships between things. Thus, when it is pretended that the lower good is not subordinate to the higher, the two do not suddenly become equal, but instead the lower overthrows the higher, and the higher becomes the new subordinate.
It had always been said that man had duties, and it was from these duties that he drew his rights. Aquinas had considered right as a thing oriented outward, which was therefore social and relational, not something claimed for oneself. He would have agreed with Dávila’s saying that a man “has no more right than that which he derives from another’s duty.”
When Liberalism denied the correlation between right and duty, it ended by emphasizing right to the exclusion of duty. This led inevitably to the present situation, where no one can coherently speak of duties at all, for the only duty left is to respect another man’s rights. The argument is circular, and it is a very small circle.
 Pacem in Terris, sections 28 and 30.
 Summa, II-II, q. 57, a. 1.
 Summa, II-II, q. 57, a. 2.
 Dávila, 2001 edition, aphorism 2979.