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Augustine of Hippo, in his Lectures on the Gospel of John, warned of the human temptation to judge what is in the hearts of others. Because of our imperfect access to the innennost thoughts of those we try to judge, wrote Augustine, we fall into suspicion and error regarding what they actually think or believe. This temptation, he argued, must be resisted. Like the Greeks, Augustine believed that the ability to do right rested on the willingness to live right. So the path to thinking better of others was, for Augustine, to "desire what ought to be desired, and utterly avoid what ought to be avoided."

We are human, of course, and avoiding what we should avoid is one of the most difficult of human tasks, particularly at a moment of significant cultural skepticism about the word should. American society has come to see rights as exercises of autonomy rather than, as the natural law tradition would have it, one piece of the individual's complex participation in a world of constant moral decision. The natural law position locates rights in a hierarchy of goods, and doubts both the wisdom and the morality of conveying rights upon those who have not been taught moral reasoning first. Because of our national discomfort with the natural law approach—to say nothing of the moral teaching of the Judeo-Christian religious tradition—we have a good deal of trouble explaining to right holders (a fancy term for our fellow citizens) what they should and should not do, and why.

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