What do we currently consider to be our ‘rights’? What are simply ‘privileges’ or ‘entitlements’? Who has what ‘rights’…and why are some excluded? And then…who gets to decide about these matters? I’ve found it useful sometimes to refer to several online resources for interesting reference materials. Here’s a brief introduction to the entry on ‘Rights’ in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
“A right to life, a right to choose; a right to vote, to work, to strike; a right to one phone call, to dissolve parliament, to operate a forklift, to asylum, to equal treatment before the law, to feel proud of what one has done; a right to exist, to sentence an offender to death, to launch a nuclear first strike, to carry a concealed weapon, to a distinct genetic identity; a right to believe one’s own eyes, to pronounce the couple husband and wife, to be left alone, to go to hell in one’s own way.”
I like this list…a bit humorous, but thought-provoking. When I found it, I chuckled to myself at certain places, and paused with moral questioning at other places. When I pondered the list as a whole, I began flipping these propositions to ask what responsibilities might provide some moral, ethical or practical tensions. This step, however, introduces a whole lot of complex issues…more with some ‘rights’ than with others. I believe at least in theory that all ‘rights’ must have some intrinsic responsibilities, and perhaps even some duties. Of course, I might be wrong about this…but, if I’m right, any conversation that includes a discussion of ‘rights’ should also address whatever responsibilities would fall to leaders and to individual citizens.
From the standpoint of our deliberative practice, this natural association between rights and responsibilities could prove to be important. If we really want to dig in to a topic to discover some of the foundational values behind our opinions, we need to identify and then discuss the tensions and trade-offs in a variety of approaches. Interestingly enough, it doesn’t really seem to matter where we start…we naturally connect with the balancing concept. My feeling is that we can make our conversations more meaningful, if we consistently pay attention to this relationship and if we consistently include the full range of responsibilities that accrue from any proposed right, entitlement or privilege in public policy.
In addition, I have a feeling that discussing these balance points would provide a good mechanism for understanding some of our basic differences. We all pretty much understand there are some rights in life, but we disagree on what might be a right…and what might only be a privilege…and what might be something we always must earn. Similarly, we all understand there are some responsibilities in life, but again we disagree in significant ways on who is responsible for taking the appropriate actions in basic and specific situations. In our deliberative practice and in everyday conversations, we can discover something essential about many issues by asking the one simple question: “What rights or benefit are most important…and who needs to take responsibility for action?”