Rights vs. Duties

(This is another draft from the past that just needed a little light cleanup before hitting “Publish.)

In a previous piece, A Fisking, a couple of commenters have taken exception or raised questions that ought to be addressed in depth. The first was “craig“:

‘Any “right” that demands that someone else provide a service, a material good, or any other thing of value is not a RIGHT.’

Whoa there.

We do use the word ‘right’ in two ways, but it’s not so clean as negative-rights good, positive-rights bad. The only rational basis for comprehending what we mostly understand intuitively lies in natural law, but natural law does include a few positive rights in addition to the obvious negative rights.

What John Locke described and Jefferson wrote into the Declaration are natural or ‘negative’ rights. These are rights (life, liberty, property) that automatically exist in a person unless they are negated (taken away) by some external force or impediment. They are inalienable in that they exist prior to any governments or laws; men are ‘endowed by their Creator’ with these rights, and so no government may, as a matter of justice, arbitrarily impede them.

The problem is that ‘positive’ rights (rights that impose a duty on another) do exist. The left has ruined our concept of them, starting with the Soviet propagandists who boasted about the Soviet ‘rights’ to employment, housing, etc., to distract from their obvious offenses against natural rights.

First and foremost, a child has the right to the care of both his father and his mother. To neglect the duty of caring for one’s offspring is to deprive him of justice. A child also has the rights to care, food, and shelter, as do his parents when they are old and unable to care for themselves. Without a natural-law understanding that the act of procreation also ‘endows’ certain duties upon persons, all basis for the law’s treatment of families (marriage, guardianship, inheritance, etc.) vanishes.

I responded:

Here we’re going to have to agree to disagree.  A parent has a duty to their minor children.  Adult children have a duty to their eldery parents.  I do not consider the imposition of these duties “rights.”  My definition of the word “right” is then narrower than yours.  “Duties” are not the reciprocal of “rights,” in my view.  I have a right to arms.  I do not have a duty to be armed.  I have a duty to care for my children and my parents.  They do not have a right to have access to my checking account.

To which “craig” replied:

OK, I’ll agree with that take, if you can tell me where duties come from.

A Catholic Christian can say that rights and duties alike are corollary attributes of the God-given dignity intrinsic to humans as beings made in His image (i.e., with free will, rationality, and conscience).  So I’m comfortable speaking of duties.  But in the absence of some philosophically rigorous basis, it’s hard to claim that there are intrinsic duties upon any person.  Sure, care for offspring is in our DNA, but it’s also in animals’ DNA and yet many of them abandon or even eat their young.  If the adult animal survives to reproduce another day, it’s all the same to natural selection.  We don’t treat animals as moral agents in this case; what causes us to treat humans as such?

Classical philosophy considers justice as the condition of one’s having what is rightfully his.  But reciprocity between rights and duties has to be limited:  only when another’s acts leave you incapable of exercising your natural right, do they implicitly assume a proportional duty to aid.  This is nothing more than restoring what rightfully belonged to another, and such is just and is consistent with centuries of common law.  He who breaks, buys.  He who procreates assumes a duty to care for offspring.  He who impedes your right to self-defense in a particular place implicitly assumes a duty to defend you.

If you don’t have at least this level of correspondence between right and duty, then it must follow that a declaration (as QuadGMoto argues above) that the incapable have no right to food, only need, means that by that same declaration it cannot be unjust to let Granny starve.

Good discussion.

Yes it is.

Andrew MacDougal also asks:

What about the 5th amendment right, “…nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” Providing just compensation seems to require somebody else do something.

What about the 5th amendment right “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.” In the same way a trial requires all sorts of work by paid professionals plus a jury donating their time, so a ‘right’ to health care requires other people to work.

Pressed for time even then, I deferred to my readers to reply, and one Chris Gerard stepped up:

I would posit that it is different, and I’ll address the two points separately.

First, with regard to private property, you can’t only talk about the part where just compensation occurs. The absolute most important part of that clause, in my opinion, is the part where the government is taking your property away from you. Furthermore, that taking is happening whether you want to allow it or not, and will be done – as with so many other government actions – with armed agents of the government standing by if need be. Just compensation isn’t just requiring someone else to do something; here, it’s saying that the .gov is going to take your private property if need be, but they have to compensate you justly for doing so.

The second part of 5A that you mention, on the other hand, is a very “um… lemme think about that for a minute” kind of argument. Again, though, I have to begin with the part where the accused is facing a government that’s here to do some taking (likely why these two clauses are in the same Amendment. Neat, ain’t it?). In this case, we’re talking about taking your money (fines), freedom (imprisonment), or life (death penalty). That’s a Big Damned Deal, and requires as it should a whole big lot of folks to make damn sure that the .gov, on behalf of the people, has proven beyond the shadow of a doubt the necessity of removing your money, freedom, or life.

While there is a glowing similarity to the healthcare argument, it’s still apples and oranges once you take away the government force. When it comes to getting treated at a hospital, sure it can be life-or-death, and yes, that makes the situation arguably every bit as important as a trial – if not more so – but we’re not talking about a situation where the hospital administrators are taking away health you already had. And that makes it very, very different.

The next day I received an email from retired blogger Publicola, which I turned into its own post, More on Rights, which was his exploration of individual rights as property rights. I can’t say I disagreed with any of it.

But now it’s my turn, as promised.

As I have noted previously in the “Rights” essays linked over on the left sidebar, I am convinced that Ayn Rand was correct in that there is only one fundamental right – the right to one’s own life – and that all other rights are corollaries of that fundamental.  I believe that John Locke’s “Life, Liberty, Property” list of fundamental rights are such corollaries.  I also believe that Rand was accurate when she defined any right as “a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context.”  So let me address craig’s question concerning the source of duty.  Let me quote Heinlein:

Do not confuse “duty” with what other people expect of you; they are utterly different. Duty is a debt you owe to yourself to fulfill obligations you have assumed voluntarily. Paying that debt can entail anything from years of patient work to instant willingness to die. Difficult it may be, but the reward is self-respect.

Duty is voluntary. It is not imposed by outside forces – thus there is no such thing as (for instance) “obligatory charity” – the term is null.  Self-respect is a function of education and of culture.  What one would never imagine doing in ones own culture has throughout history been done to other cultures without a second thought.  Remember Rand’s “moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context.”  If that social context changes, then the actions that are sanctioned also can change, based on cultures.

Bear in mind, I’m not saying this is philosophically correct, I’m saying this is how it has worked throughout history.

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