I am rather tired of hearing about our rights and privileges as American citizens. The time is come - it now is - when we ought to hear about the duties and responsibilities of our citizenship.
- Reverend Peter Marshall, on being elected Chaplain of the US Senate in January 1947.
Rights and Duties
Rights can be overemphasised, at the expense of the duties associated with them, leading to adverse effects on public morality. Most cultures seek to avoid this if they can. When people talk of rights they refer to things to which they are entitled, that no one can take away from them. This is generally correct, but incomplete. Rights form half of an indivisible whole: they exist only because of some associated duty. A simple example illustrates what is meant:
A father looking after his young daughter tells her to 'keep away from the fire'. If the child does not obey, he has the right to coerce her into staying away from the fire (the child must be protected, despite herself). The right to do this flows directly from the parent's duty to care for the child and keep her from harm.
Your Right to Your Rights
Any right you have over others follows from a duty - it is the duty that gives you the right.
Any right you have as an individual carries with it the duty to recognise and respect that right in others.
Failing in your Duties
A clarification: failing in your duty does not necessarily result in the loss of your right(s). You may be punished according to the rules (laws) of your society, and the punishment might even include suspension of certain rights. It should be noted that some rights are considered so fundamental that they may never be suspended.
Being a Citizen
Sometimes we hear people loudly proclaiming and demanding their 'rights'. Further consideration, and a dash of cynicism, suggests that they are demanding exactly what they want: their rights, without any associated duties. This is the 'overemphasis on rights' referred to above. It is wrong because our world, our societies, cannot function if individuals insist on their rights while ignoring the duties that belong with them. In this sense, the cult of the individual may have gone too far. In some cases, at least, we have forgotten what it means to be a citizen.
It is important to note two things that this entry is not:
It is not an attack on rights; quite the opposite. Rights, when accompanied by the duties that go with them, are accepted in most cultures across the world as a good thing.
It is not about particular rights. These are outside the scope of this entry. Whether or not they are rights is a matter of opinion that depends on cultures, religions and individuals; no general conclusions can be usefully drawn.
A Different Perspective
Although rights cannot (morally) exist without the duties that go with them, duties can exist alone, without rights. Although it seems suspiciously simple, many misunderstandings about rights can be avoided by rewording them as duties. If, for example, you have a right to walk unobstructed by other people, this can be expressed as the duty of other people not to obstruct you as you walk - it means the same. So why bother? Because, as human beings, we have a tendency to place emphasis on our rights, 'overlooking' the duties that go with them. Expressing rights as duties makes positive use of this otherwise unfortunate tendency. When we focus on our duties, we make a point of remembering their benefits - the rights (or rather, the duties of everyone else) they confer!
Rights in the Real World
So we have rights and duties; indivisible. Or we have duties standing alone. As we have seen, there are advantages to the latter perspective. But what use is all this philosophising about rights? It can often help you to tell right from wrong in the real world. For example, consider a news report describing how a citizen failed in their professional duty towards a client. Is the accusation fair? You can tell by looking for the authority (rights) that should accompany the responsibility (duties). Was the citizen given the authority to discharge their responsibility to the client? Were there rules of conduct in place that prevented or constrained the actions of the citizen? In short, if the citizen had the authority to discharge their professional responsibility, but failed to do so, then they are responsible. If not, the responsibility must lie elsewhere.
In our example, as in the real world, responsibilities are often distributed among a number of individuals. For example, the citizens of a democratically-governed country are jointly responsible for the actions taken on their behalf by their elected representatives. This doesn't change the rules, but it does make their application less easy. This tells us that the real world is not just black and white, but also contains infinite shades of grey.