Food, clothing, shelter basic rights? Of course!

By | September 30, 2009

In a letter to the editor in the September 21 edition of the Boston Herald, one Christine Giroux wrote:

At the core of the health care controversy is the question of whether health care is a basic right held by every American citizen…  We all need food, clothing and shelter.  Are these basic rights too? …  The truth is that these things are not rights and neither is health care.

I found her letter so astoundingly offensive that I had to write a response.  Unfortunately, the Herald printed neither my response nor any other objecting to Giroux’s assertion that food, clothing and shelter are not basic rights.  Perhaps this is because they felt the issue had already played itself out, or perhaps it’s because they agree with Giroux, or perhaps it’s because they didn’t think my letter was controversial enough, or perhaps they think they’ve printed too many letters from me recently :-).  In any case, here’s what I wrote:

To the editor:

Attempting to contrast with the right to health care, Christine Giroux asks, “We all need food, clothing and shelter. Are these basic rights too?”

According to the millennia-old traditions and ethical code observed by me and my fellow Jews, the answer is clear and unequivocal: yes, of course they are!

Supporting the poor is not merely something to do if one feels like it. It is an obligation placed both on individuals and on the community (i.e., the government). Not only is it a good deed to support the poor; it is a grave sin against man and God to do otherwise.

While I would not presume to speak for other religions, I find it difficult to understand how many who deny these basic rights profess to follow a religion whose holy texts teach, “Let the man with two tunics share with him who has none, and let him who has food do likewise,” and, “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor.”

American culture encourages the mistaken beliefs that poverty can be eliminated and that the poor are responsible for their own condition. While that may be true for some, the truth is that there will always be people who need the help of others, and help them we must.


Jonathan Kamens

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6 thoughts on “Food, clothing, shelter basic rights? Of course!

  1. tobiwan

    jik said:
    October 12, 2009 at 8:50 am
    @tobiwan: You’ve very eloquently expressed a quite reasonable view of what constitutes a “right.” It is, however, a view with which I disagree. In fact, I believe that the “every man for himself” mentality implied by your definition of “rights” is morally deficient.

    tobiwan replies:
    I quite agree that an every man for himself mentality is morally deficient. But that is not the issue. If food, for example, is described as a right, that implies that that one ‘has the right’ to take that food from another. This is also a morally deficient viewpoint. But the real question is whether one individual can legally compel another to do something against his will?

    My stand is that one cannot call a right that which abrogates anothers rights.

    1. jik Post author

      If food, for example, is described as a right, that implies that that one ‘has the right’ to take that food from another.

      No, it doesn’t imply that at all. Again, you are claiming that something follows directly that in fact does not follow at all. You are also, again, using circular logic by assuming your conclusion, i.e., by assuming your definition of what constitutes a right to prove that something is not a right, when what we are really arguing about is the definition of what constitutes a right.

      The question of whether something is a right and the question of how that right is satisfied are orthogonal.

  2. tobiwan

    Granted that under Jewish law a jewish community has the power to coerce tzedakah because it is a duty, and that the poor have a ‘right’ to receive. But does an individual have a ‘right’ to receive tzedakah under all circumstances? Does an individual have a right to demand tzedakah be given to him by any one person? Does he have the right to demand tzedakah from the community? And if so, at what level of support?

    Let’s go to the extreme. If a person is able-bodied and one knows this, is it allowed to refuse to give to him what he asks? Who makes that determination? If it is someone other than the potential receiver that makes the determination, how it is a right? If someone else determines the level of need below which one obtains this ‘right’, then falls short of the criteria for it to be a right.

    Also if one only gains the ‘right’ to receive tzedakah by virtue of circumstance, it doesn’t sound very much like a ‘right’ as we understand the term. And one gaining ‘rights’ by circumstance doesn’t make much sense. A ‘right’ is something that you have under all circumstances; either you have it or you don’t.

    At best you can say that it is a community obligation, and that a community may ‘tax’ an individual in requiring that he pay into a common fund, not that he support a particular person (unless he has a legal familial obligation to do so). On the other hand, the community also has the right to refuse a particular person whom they consider to not be in need, either because he doesn’t fit the criteria of need that the community has established, or perhaps even because he blatantly refuses to support himself.

    This shows that even in a more giving, entirely-Jewish community, that food, shelter and clothing are not individual rights.

    1. jik Post author

      You are trying to make black-and-white, absolute distinctions in an area where it is neither necessary or possible to make such distinctions. You are also muddling the concept of tzedaka with the concept of “rights”.

      It is true that questions such as who is entitled to ask for tzedaka, how much they are are entitled to receive, who is required to give, whether you are required to give whenever we ask, etc. are extremely complex. However, your assertion that their complexity proves that there is no “right” to food, clothing and shelter is a leap of logic that you have failed to support, and indeed that is unsupportable.

      As for your assertion that something one is only entitled to by circumstance “doesn’t sound very much like a ‘right’ as we understand the term,” you are presupposing your conclusion, i.e., using your definition of “rights” to decide what sounds like a right and what doesn’t. That’s obviously circular logic.

      You are trying to make an idea complex that is actually quite simple. That simple idea is that the Torah says everyone is entitled to food, clothing and shelter, and that if you do not have enough food, clothing or shelter, you are entitled to ask for them, and both individuals and the community have an obligation to provide them.

  3. jik Post author

    @tobiwan: You’ve very eloquently expressed a quite reasonable view of what constitutes a “right.” It is, however, a view with which I disagree. In fact, I believe that the “every man for himself” mentality implied by your definition of “rights” is morally deficient.

    In Jewish law, there are many laws for which, as you said, we are “judged by God,” not by man. Supporting the poor is not one of those laws. In fact, in Jewish law, if a member of the community refuses to do his share of supporting the community’s poor people, the leaders of the community are permitted to force him to do so if there is no other way for them to provide for the poor.

    The system of morality embodied by Jewish law is, in my opinion, superior to every other system of morality to which I’ve been exposed in my life. Certainly, it is superior to what passes for morality in modern, secular America.

    Perhaps the essential disagreement between us is that I live within a belief system where the purpose of law is not only to preserve order, but also to preserve moral behavior.

    Interestingly, many of the people who campaign so strongly against the government “taking by force” to support the poor campaign even more strongly for the government to take away by force a woman’s right to an abortion, or the right of consenting adults to live as they choose in the privacy of their own home (no, I am not counting you among these people, since I have no idea what your views are on these issues; I am just pointing out that they often go hand in hand).

    Our Declaration of Independence says that people are “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” I put it to you that a man cannot live without food, clothing and shelter.

  4. tobiwan

    What is a right? A right is something you cannot be stopped from doing, and it is just because you are you and because you want to.

    Nowadays many things are called rights that shouldn’t be. Ask the following questions if you are not sure.
    If it doesn’t come from within you, it is not a right.
    If you get it from someone else it is not a right.
    If you have to take it from someone else it is not a right.
    If someone took it from someone else and then gave it to you, it is not a right.

    You cannot take something from others and call them rights. You want a job or food, that’s fine, but no one is obligated to give them to you, so they are not rights. If you take food from someone it is theft; if you coerce someone into paying you for doing something that they have not willingly hired you to do is extortion or slavery.

    Yes, we have a moral obligation to give to the poor and the needy, but we do not have a legal obligation. It is one of the commandments that has no set measure. You have the moral obligation to give, but you do not have the right to take by force (by gunpoint or by taxes) from someone who is not willing to give. He will be judged by God, not by you.

    Rights are given to you by God and are in you naturally. They are not given to you by government nor are they given to you by others.

    Free speech is a right. Exercising it does not take away from anyone else. Exercising freedom of assembly does not take away from anyone else. Anything that you forcibly take from one person to give to another is immoral, no matter the need, no matter the intention.


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