Friday, 2 October 2015

Rights, Responsiblities and Privileges

I’ve made asides to my views on the concept of rights before, and occasionally promised that I would one day expand on them.  That day has finally arrived.

Very simply put, I do not believe in rights.  I do not believe in human rights, fundamental rights, playwrights (no, wait…) or inalienable rights (even for aliens).  People very glibly talk about ‘human rights’ and what they are, especially their own and especially when they think that they ought to have something that they’re not getting.

We have written charters of human rights, right to a home, right to family, right to freedom of expression and freedom of religious and freedom of assembly, to clean water and food, clothing, education etc. etc. etc. and so on and so forth; a bill of interminable rights.  And to have these charters and bills is extremely praiseworthy, a laudable attempt to make sure that everyone has a good standard of life.  If you accept the concept as a given, then it all makes perfect sense.

However, I do not accept the base premise.  Why do we have any rights at all?  Where do they come from?  What are ‘rights’?  The dictionary tells us that a right is “A moral or legal entitlement to have or do something.”  The definition given by Wikipedia is better; “Rights are legal, social, or ethical principles of freedom or entitlement; that is, rights are the fundamental normative rules about what is allowed of people or owed to people, according to some legal system, social convention, or ethical theory.”

Perhaps I should restate my position slightly.  I do not object to the concept of rights per se, but to the conception of rights as it seems to be in the minds of many people.  People seem to think that rights are fundamental, built into the laws of physics, objective, self-evident and absolute.  I think that they are far more important than that.

I’ve seen a placard in a picture of a protest bearing the slogan ‘Education is a right, not a privilege’.  I disagree.  Education is a privilege, and being so, is much more important than a right.  Freedom is a privilege, family is a privilege, even food and water and life are privileges, and not everyone has them.  Now, please don’t think for a moment that I’m suggesting that some people ought not to have them; quite the opposite.  However, I think that if you assume that these things are inalienable rights that people ought to have ‘just because’, it’s far too easy to undervalue them.

Living in the UK, I am fortunate to live in a society that permits me these privileges.  I could very easily have been born in a place or a time period in which I do not have access to all or any of these privileges, and I am extremely grateful for the fact that I have been.  I’m not suggesting that we should live in a state of grovelling gratitude to our governments for supplying and enforcing these privileges, rather we should very carefully watch them to ensure that they continue to do so. 

But why should I care whether others have these privileges, as long as I do?  Well, ultimately it’s a case of ‘Do as you would be done by’.  I consider them to be a Good Thing, and it is right that all people should share these privileges; I continue to contend that this is not the same as them being ‘rights’.  Indeed, because it is right that people should have them, they stop being privileges, and become more important still; they become responsibilities.  I do not have the right to be free; I have the responsibility to use my freedom well, and to ensure the freedom of others.  I do not have the right to free speech; I have the responsibility to use my speech for good, and for ensuring that others can do so as well.  I do not have the right to life or happiness; I am responsible for my own, and for the life and happiness of everyone else, and they are responsible for mine.

The Conservative party has stated that they wish to scrap the EU Declaration of Human Rights.  I can't say that this strikes me as a wholly good idea, but if they do, I think that they could do worse than to replace it with a Declaration of Human Responsibilities.  If we held people accountable when they failed in their responsibilities, rather than simply allowing people to appeal when they feel they have not been accorded their rights, I think the world would be a much better place.

We seem to think very highly of our rights.  It would be a much better world if instead we thought as highly about our responsibilities, and were as grateful for our privileges.  It seems to me that we would be less eager to give them up, and less likely to abuse them or take them for granted.

But of course, you have every right to disagree, if you want to.

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