Friday, November 13, 2009

There is no such thing as a Right

You’ll likely think this entry’s title cynically titillating, a small man’s petty attempt to attract attention with a cheap piece of sensationalism. It’s not. I mean it sincerely -- and besides, I hardly have the audience that would make such a tactic appropriate ;-) .

Rights are ideas born of liberal thought, whose focus is the self, the individual. In this tradition individuals have Rights to things like “freedom” and “the pursuit of happiness.” Seen in isolation there is nothing wrong with this, but the idea gives rise to important questions: From where do these Rights come? Who defends them? How are they enshrined? How do they manifest in the body? These are not easy questions to answer, and it is not my intention to try. Mine is a more general inquiry.

Is it sensible to adhere to a philosophy which revolves around a notion of defensible Rights, Rights which forever need protecting against one kind of tyranny or another? Doesn’t the unintended logic of vulnerable and fragile Rights mean inexorable drift to dependency on collective power, produce in fact a populace of individuals reliant on a mighty state for the protection of that which is “rightfully” theirs anyway? For no matter how noble the intent, how necessary the idea of Rights for our civilizational progress, is there not an intrinsic weakness in this idea that leads to tyranny, that unwittingly reintroduces, in modified form, the very beast it sought to conquer? Does not the struggle to defend and claim Rights foster dependence, where it should foster independence?

We don’t actually need Rights, which are anyway just ideas we came up with (as powerful as ideas are). Rights are not “real” things like frienship, trust and respect. We need instead, I suggest, to invert the idea and recognise our obligations, to ourselves and to each other, as well as to the ecosystem of which we are a part, in which we are embedded. A willingness to recognise and fulfil our obligations is a sign of maturity and independence, qualities the vast majority of us lack. If we felt ourselves obliged to understand the world and its systems to the best of our abilities, such that we benefit from each other’s ongoing attempts to become what we are becoming, there would be no need for a mighty collective power to defend Rights to this, that and the other. Obligations don’t need defending, for they encourage cooperation and commitment to ongoing, general betterment. They need to be recognised, understood, and lived. Rights are inalienable and therefore unlearned, requiring no wisdom to be demanded, nor any sense of the consequences when they are acted on. Obligations are learned and then owned, almost as a process of osmosis.

We should not want the Right to pursue happiness, like a child pleading to watch TV after doing its homework! We should recognise our obligation to pursue happiness, simply because the more happy people there are, the happier we are as individuals and as societies. Having the Right to “freedom” means nothing unless we understand the responsibility “freedom” brings with it. Far better to learn about the complex relationships between things, and contemplate what freedom means within this context. Only then can we recognise our obligations as individuals given shape and proportion by the society in which we live. We don’t need to learn passively a list of Rights we all happen to have been born with, we need to understand our role in the world and the obligations this role brings with it.

And none of what I have said here should be taken to mean I believe in force. I think it possible to set up an open system of education in which children want to understand these things, in which they are encouraged to learn how to learn independently , within the context of the interconnectivities of life. A forced obligation is no obligation at all, it is an order. As Carl Gustav Jung said, "Free will is doing gladly that which we must do."

2 comments:

Edwardo said...

Brilliant stuff Toby, but to my mind your construction has a flaw.

You wrote:

"Obligations don’t need defending, for they encourage cooperation and commitment to ongoing, general betterment. They need to be recognised, understood, and lived. Rights are inalienable and therefore unlearned, requiring no wisdom to be demanded, nor any sense of the consequences when they are acted on. Obligations are learned and then owned, almost as a process of osmosis."

-Recognized, understood, and lived, yes, however, I fear there is more to it. Unfortunately, just as "Rights", require defense, by the same token, so too do obligations often require enforcement. This is because, ultimately, obligations are analogous to contracts. And as we know, contracts quite often go unfulfilled, necessitating a third party to step into the breach for the purpose of forcing fulfillment.

It seems to me there is a certain amount of pick your poison when choosing between a rights based society and one built on obligations. The other difficulty with the idea of an obligations based society, or so it seems to me, is that it has the whiff of coercion about it.

THD Russell said...

Thank you Edwardo, both for reading and commenting (the compliment was very nice too!)

The flaw you mention was in my mind when writing, hence the last paragraph. As with all my postings here the intent is to provoke discussion, not lay down the law. That said, I think an obligation-oriented society would foster more independence, or at least be geared more to independence and maturity, than a rights-based one. The challenge is in the education.

I am reading John Taylor Gatto right now, who is violently reaffirming my belief in a complete, root and branch reform of education. I recommend him highly. We are nowhere near close to a decent education and have very little clue what type of humans we could produce if we allowed ALL of them a decent and relevant education.

Rights don't exist, whereas obligations are logical consequences of being alive. Not seeking perfection, I stress the obligation side as being the more likely to produce sustainability and cooperation, not to mention emotional maturity and true independence of thought, things the current system wants to squash forever.