The Journey series
Last week I wrote about the need to assess truth, beauty, and goodness in context to understand them properly. This week I place rights in context with obligations, responsibilities and limitations. To understand them properly we must know what rights are, where they come from, and why we have them.
The constitution of the USA lists 3 unalienable rights for all men; life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These fundamental rights form the base for all other laws. The founding fathers understood that, all men being equal, no man can justly restrict another except by that to which he also defers. That which restricts must be greater than that which it restricts. They recognized that these rights are granted by God and the State must acknowledge them.
Even when understood as unalienable, it’s not possible for these rights to be absolute. There are occasions when the rights of one impinge on those of another. We have a right to the necessities of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness but not at the expense of the same rights for other people. To resolve the inevitable conflicts, men develop a social contract. To protect our own rights, we agree to respect the rights of others. These agreements form our moral and legal codes. Moral codes are protected by association; we interact with those who share similar beliefs and resolve conflicts by debate. Legal codes are protected by tribunal; we assign officials to define regulations and mediate disputes. The rights of those with whom we associate and those who live where we live become obligations, responsibilities and limitations for us.
Most of us are fairly adept at recognizing this in the local and immediate but somewhat myopic. Those in affluent areas have trouble seeing as far as the poorer neighbourhoods in town. Those in poorer neighbourhoods are often so focused on the injustice they perceive in their rich neighbours that they fail to turn their eyes to those living in impoverished countries or refugee camps. This short-sightedness lies partly in our pursuit of happiness. It is uncomfortable to acknowledge the iniquity of our own relative advantage. Another aspect of our hesitation is despair. We feel incapable of affecting change. “The problem is too big for me.” “If I don’t do it, someone else will.”
Recognizing the problem is already the first step on the journey to solving it. I suggest a good second step is to begin paying more attention to our obligations, responsibilities and limitations. This is not a new concept; it was done very well 3300 years ago. What many people object to as 'a bunch of thou shalt nots’ is actually God’s precise statement of our rights in terms of our obligations, responsibilities and limitations. Without placing our rights in this context, we have little hope of understanding them clearly.
Peter T Elliott