Monday, August 17, 2009

From Rights to Duties

Recently there has been a lot of brouhaha over the belligerency and unruliness at health care town hall meetings. Often these disruptive people yell slogans about their rights, which they take to mean "entitlements to do whatever you want"—including bringing automatic weapons. This sentiment has surfaced in a really garish way right now, but it's always been there, if only latently. David Sedaris, for example, has a funny story in Me Talk Pretty One Day where he mentions a man at a Chicago movie theater who refused to turn off his transistor radio. When the usher was called, he started arguing about how we live in a free country.

I think these anecdotes signal a general sentiment that confuses rights with complete license; freedom with impunity. Scholars will no doubt point out that these people are completely misunderstanding the concepts, but even still I think these misunderstandings arise out of the very language of rights themselves:

Rights are essentially an egocentric concept: with rights, you take for granted the entitlements society extends to you while ignoring the work everyone else is constantly doing to uphold those rights.

In other words, the problem with rights is that they obscure the fact that one man's right is everyone else's duty. If I have the right to free speech, it is only because everyone else in the community takes it upon themselves to refrain from silencing me, especially when they do not like what they hear. If we are a freer people, it is only because everyone is working harder at fulfilling their duties to themselves, their family, and their neighbors.

The concept of duty presents a better way of understanding how we should structure our social relations. However, this switch in thinking is not as radical as one might think. Rights and duties ultimately both represent the same values, like two sides of the same coin: if everyone is fulfilling their duties, then everyone’s rights are being respected. The difference between the two is that rights focus on how the individual receives respect from everyone else, whereas duties focus on how the individual gives respect to everyone around him. 

It's a small switch in thinking that makes a number of key differences. First off, it makes us more concerned about other people. In this new paradigm, instead of asserting rights (and thus focusing on my needs over everyone else's), my mind will turn to fulfilling duties (considering what I need to do help others satisfy their needs).

To be sure, I’m not talking about subordinating the needs of an individual for the sake of the collective. Rather, I’m speaking to the fact that a person can control only whether or not he fulfills his duties towards others, not whether others fulfill their duties towards him. An individual, on his own, has no power to defend his own right; he can only try to persuade others to respect his right. And if these former right-violators decide to change their right-violating ways, then what they are really doing is sacrificing their personal interests for the sake of maintaining society’s broader moral ideals—a principle commonly known as duty. Thus, even rights (a very individual-centric concept) contain within them notions of duty, making it difficult to say that a duty paradigm does not respect the individual.

The second benefit of the duty paradigm is that it makes more explicit the idea that social balance is only the result of work, and is fragilely maintained. Unlike rights, which seem to exist automatically until violated, duties are left undone until they are fulfilled. The Declaration of Independence can say what it wants about inalienability and God-guarantees, but history shows that it is only humans who protect the rights of others, and humans can as easily trample rights as they can uphold them.

What this shift to duties will not do, however, is make our moral problems any easier. Just as we try to understand what rights apply to what situations, we'll have to try to understand what duties apply to what situations. But I do think we will be working with a more socially responsible system of struggling through moral problems.

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