Archive for April, 2016|Monthly archive page

On Rights and What’s Right

In Politics on April 29, 2016 at 4:04 pm

What if there are no “unalienable rights?”

The first ten amendments to the Constitution outline some fundamental rights, but we should be clear that those rights are granted by the Constitution. And the idea of those rights, including the idea that our rights are thus limited and unless the right to something is in the Constitution somewhere means that it doesn’t exist (the ninth amendment notwithstanding), is a powerful one. But what does all that really mean?

Rights are a human invention. They are neither natural nor God-given. Rights can only be “natural” if we believe that nature confers rights, but the natural, non-human world depends on neither morality nor ethics for its interactions. In a world of prey and predators there can be no right to life. And the idea that God grants us our rights depends on whether we believe in a god, and what sort of god we believe in. Because humans create and endow rights, they are almost always limited and poorly understood.

There are two fundamental principles regarding rights. The first is that something may be the right thing to do, even if it isn’t a right. The second, its converse, is that just because something is a right doesn’t mean that it is always right.

On balance, I think that we spend too much time trying to define rights and too little time trying to define what is right.

I don’t have to believe that everyone has a right to a basic minimum living wage in order to be convinced that making sure that everyone has the ability to live a decent life and participate in the nation’s economic life is a good idea. . A nation which systemically denies large segments of its people equitable access to and participation in its economic life is headed for more than just economic trouble. If a society genuinely cares about the welfare of its citizens, about the health of its economy, and about the stability of its culture, then seeing to it that every citizen has the means to participate meaningfully in the economy, and to avoid the many ills associated with cycles of poverty, then a living wage makes good sense as a part of that. It’s the right thing to do.

I don’t need to believe that access to affordable, effective health care is a human right in order to believe that it makes a lot of sense to keep the nation’s (and the world’s) populace as healthy as we can and to make it the work of government to ensure that. With or without a right to it, people clearly have a need for it; and a healthy, productive society is preferable to one in which preventable and treatable diseases waste billions of dollars of both personal and public wealth. Also, a society that cares for the needs of its people is less vulnerable to political and social unrest and more likely to promote not just good physical health, but greater levels of creativity, innovation and productivity over all. It’s the right thing to do.

I don’t need to believe (although I do) that universal suffrage and access to the voting booth is a right in order to believe that doing all we can to ensure that every citizen has access to the voting booth is essential to the health of our system of government. When we disenfranchise any of our citizens we cheapen our democracy. A government of the people needs the participation of all the people.

I don’t need to believe that a quality education for all our children is a basic right to believe that having a well-educated citizenry, capable of cultural sensitivity, creative expression, rational discourse, intelligent problem-solving and critical thinking can only improve the quality of our lives.

I don’t need to believe (although I do) that every adult human being has a right to enter into a marriage with another adult they choose in order to believe that a society that marginalizes any group of people and excludes them from the normal life of the community and equal protection under the law is a society that has lost its moral compass.

I could go on, but the point is that we don’t need to reduce every issue to a question of individual rights. We need to decide not just what people have a right to, but what it is right for us to do for them and for us.

And it is equally true that having a right to something is not an absolute guarantee that we will always get exactly what we want. It is inevitable that our individual rights will come into conflict. And when those conflicts occur it is the work of government, through its laws, to balance out those rights. And declaring something a right doesn’t necessarily make everything we do in the name of that right a good thing to do.

We already acknowledge that we have a right to free and open speech and assembly; but we have long recognized that some speech is so harmful that it cannot be allowed. We acknowledge that we have a right to believe as we will, but our Constitution tells us that we cannot impose those beliefs on others or enshrine them in the law.

It is a basic tenet of our culture that one person’s practice of his rights is limited when that practice harms others or when there is a conflict between the rights of individuals with different needs and different perspectives. It is the purpose of law to reduce that harm and to navigate those conflicts so that all our citizens can live together equitably.

In the same way, it is possible to believe that every citizen has a constitutionally guaranteed right to bear arms, but also to see that unlimited and unregulated weaponry poses a significant danger to us all. This country did the experiment with an openly armed citizenry in the nineteenth century and it didn’t work. People were not safer; so cities and towns enacted limitations on open weaponry within city limits because they saw and directly experienced the danger. We are seeing that danger again now in far too many tragic and terrible ways. There is no reason to believe that we are more mature, more capable of using the weapons safely and responsibly now than we were then, as individuals or as a society.

It is possible to believe that each person has the right to earn what wealth he can, but to see that great income inequity is not sustainable, and that great harm is done to both individuals and the entire society when there is too great a disparity between great wealth and great poverty, and no strong middle class. Certainly, unlimited wealth is not itself a right.

All my examples ignore, of course, any moral arguments that might be made. But morality implies a common basis for that morality and common understanding of what the moral standards are. A complex and diverse society is going to have trouble finding that much commonality. Moral obligations are best left to the individual conscience, whereas arguments about what might be “the right thing to do” can be made more objectively and with clearer reason.

We sometimes get so tied up in arguments about our rights that we forget to see that all rights have responsibilities of equal power and importance. We are not simply a loose collection of individuals coexisting within defined borders. We are citizens of a community, a nation, and a common culture of great diversity, but with the need to work cooperatively and rationally to solve our common problems, meet our personal and common needs, to share our common resources and to manage our conflicts. Unless we confer our rights on each other, every day, in all our actions; and unless we are willing to allow for compromise and accommodation when rights conflict; and unless we are willing claim no rights for ourselves that we are not willing to grant freely to others; then we effectively have no rights at all, only the privileges that come with power.


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