Six Duties Or A Half Dozen Rights: Does It Make A Difference?

Posted on May 15, 2011

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I have a hunch that’s probably untestable. I’d like to hear what you think of it.

If you read a first year political science, theory, studies or philosophy textbook, at some point, you will likely learn: for every claim of right, there is a corresponding responsibility of duty.

If a person has a right to food, someone has a duty to provide that food. If a person has a right to vote, someone has a duty to make it possible for that person to vote. If a person has a right to be let alone; someone has a duty to leave that person alone. So, whenever we talk of a human right; we are also always talking of a human duty.

I’m not sure why but, historically, we tend to frame political debate in terms of human rights rather than human duties. This may be because tyrants often justified their unacceptable behavior with an appeal to their rights and to the duties of others. It seems natural then that people would push back against this unacceptable behaviour by asserting that they also have rights. Perhaps, it was easier to convince people to storm the gates of hegemony to claim an entitlement rather than a responsibility. Who knows?

Whatever the reasons might have been, I can’t help but wonder if our focus on rights rather than duties has in the long run changed the tenor of our political discourse for the worse. Tyrants speak of rights to justify their tyranny and to dismiss the legitimate objections and proposal’s of others. I’m not at all convinced the ideal society is one in which we all have an equal right to be a tyrant.

To be clear, I’m not making the strong claim that an appeal to rights is intrinsically tyrannical but it seems to me that political discussions framed in terms of rights too often focus on claims and clashes of personal entitlement and, more often than not, those kinds of conversations eventually lead to bad outcomes; whereas my hunch is that political discussions framed in terms of duties would more likely be focused on our responsibilities to others and, more often than not, these kinds of conversations would eventually lead to better outcomes.

Of course, I can’t make this claim with any certainty, because a true tyrant is always able to subvert any manner of speaking to his or her own selfish ends; however, my hunch is that if we articulated our rights as duties, we would improve the tenor of our political debates and produce better political outcomes. We humans are at our best when we recognize each other’s common humanity and political discussions framed in terms of duties to others, almost as a matter of definition, forces us to recognize that there are other humans to whom we owe our regard. In contrast, the egocentric focus of rights claims make it very easy for us to forget that our rights exist only because other people accept the responsibility to do whatever is required to uphold them.

What do you think?

Would our political discussions and outcomes be usefully different if we had a Charter of Duties and Responsibilities rather than a Charter of Rights and Freedoms? Would there be any meaningful change in the tenor of our political debates if we discussed, say, our duty to ensure others have access to education rather than discussing our right to an education? Or, am I making too much an ineffectual change in tone? Is this a case of it being six of one and a half dozen of another?

As a way to wrap your head around what I’m driving at, the next time you make a claim of right or hear someone make a claim of right, try rephrasing it as a duty. E.g. I have a right to park wherever I want vs. You have a duty to ensure I can park wherever I want.

I’d love to hear what you think!