Rights and Duties
The following line of reasoning is adapted very loosely from the writings of Russell Kirk in his book Rights and Duties: Our Conservative Constitution, which covered a good bit more territory than the following treatise.
The air is filled at any given time with talk of rights. There is the right to life; the right to free speech; the right to carry arms; the right to property; the right to privacy; the right to health care; the right to worship what and how and if you please; the right to associate with whom you please; the right not to have your rights taken away without due process of law; and everybody’s favorite, the right to free stuff paid for by somebody else.
It’s a pretty wet day if you hear much enthusiastic talk about duty. Yet rights and duties are so closely bound that one cannot be seriously considered without the other. There are duties, some universal, and some taken on by or thrust upon an individual: the duty to fulfill a contract which you freely entered into; the duty to raise and protect your children responsibly; the duty to respect the rights of others;the duty to honor an oath you have bound yourself to; the duty to obey the law of the land; the duty to keep loyalty to the nation you are a citizen of.
It would seem no man is an island.
Choose carefully what must be considered a right
From our Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed
Governments are bound by duty to secure inalienable rights, by just and duly enacted laws, and by enforcing those laws justly. Men are duty-bound to honor the rights of other men, on pain of running afoul of a government who has justly derived authority.
Whatever is a right confers a duty on somebody.
That being true, we must choose carefully what is a legitimate right. To unduly burden one person with duties in order to promote a second person’s rights deprives the former of his own right to live his life unfettered by unjust and intrusive burdens. It becomes clear very quickly that not all rights are created equal: some rights must have more weight than others
Take for example an expectant mother’s putative right to privacy, juxtaposed to that unborn baby’s right to live. You are an idiot or an epic-level cretin if it takes you two whole seconds to decide which right is superior.
Jefferson and the Founding Fathers held certain rights to be of the highest order, while observing that the list might not be exhaustive: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Interestingly there was a great debate at the time as to whether “the means of acquiring and possessing property” was one of those top-rung rights. George Mason said yes. Jefferson and Franklin said no (Franklin was a no on a technicality, since he argued the government could justly tax people to raise revenues needed to secure rights in general). I say yes.
Rights, duties, and society
Where there is only one person, there are neither rights nor duties. Picture the implausible scenario where you are deposited on a distant planet to live out your life alone with only plant life to keep you company. What are rights? You can do anything you want, conscience free. What duties? To whom do you owe anything?
Yet the moment another person enters the picture, both rights and duties come into play. Both of you have rights, and both of you now have duties. Of course if you consider it an adversarial thing, then perhaps not so much. And the distinction is worth making for this reason. If people are to coexist in a civil society that is any more decent than dog-eat-dog, then both rights and duties are relevant. Even in a bleak post-apocalptical world with nothing more than armed enclaves, the moment you come into alliances to promote at least minimal safety or prosperity, you have rights and duties.
Rights, duties, and universal, moral absolutes
Some other time we shall pursue the government’s role in things. Suffice it for this discussion to observe that the government’s role in the matter is to secure those rights. The government might grant this right or that right (think driver licences here), but certain rights come from God. They are not to be lightly trifled with.
The question of how we treat each other is not merely a mathematical matter. At its lowest, civilization is an agreement to keep our weapons sheathed and let business proceed. But that is a joyless existence. That is merely toleration. Humans were meant for so much more. The human spirit longs for love, for accomplishment, for friendships, for peace, for redemption, for purpose. Too often our spirit also longs for power and for license, hence the need for government to secure the primary rights: to protect us from our worse angels.
Those higher things are fulfilled only when people have the relatively unhindered right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness: when government serves to secure those rights rather than infringe upon them. It is as it should be, for the whole subject of morality, of things absolute, spins on those rights, and how they play to each other.
It is a thing to be held against Washington, Jefferson, and Madison that while they did great things to forge our nation on the basis of such rights and freedoms, they also held black slaves their entire lives (and far, far more than just a couple). So did George Mason, Patrick Henry, and Benjamin Franklin. That is an abomination which does and should besmirch their names. John Adams did not. Alexander Hamilton is said to have not. While several of these slave-holders advocated fiercely for abolition (if that sounds weird to you, it does to me as well), they did not live their convictions.
We hold these truths to be self-evident…..
I know the argument that “those were different times”. OK, sure. But even at the time of the nation’s founding, the slavery vs abolition argument was running hot and heavy. These eloquent, deep thinking men could not have been ignorant that what they went to war for was a self-determination they denied their own slaves.
I detest the entire race grievance industry, driven by charlatans and thieves who profit from generating anger. If I have my way reparations will never be paid, not one dime, for wrongs committed by people not my ancestors over 150 years ago, to a bunch of opportunists much more interested in a payday than in any form of justice.
But I must grant that black Americans can be excused if they don’t view the Founding Fathers in quite the larger-than-life view that others might.
Exactly how inalienable are these rights?
They are not absolute. It’s curious how many death-row inmates suddenly become discriminating students of natural rights, insisting that the government has no right to deprive them of their lvies. It is government-sanctioned murder, they say.
On the contrary, the right to life is so sacred that the act of murder is the most evil crime. The punishment must fit the crime, both as a matter of justice and as a way of discouraging other offenders. Civilization is not sustainable if law and order cannot be maintained. A certain necessity is the fear of consequence.
And so it goes. If you steal the property of others, you may lose your liberty. And you should. Because you had a duty to respect the rights of others, and you did not.
So I end more or less where I started. You have certain God-granted rights, and along with them you have the duty to see to the rights of others.