Friday, January 23, 2009

Rights talk

Globe & Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson dabbles in philosophy this morning. His theme is rights and responsibilities, based upon some elements in Barack Obama's inaugural address. It's a cringeworthy read.

We live in an era of "rights," he says. He's none too keen on that. He appears to regard rights, a word that he usually encloses in shudder-quotes, as an alibi to advance material claims. And then he proceeds to insist that rights are tied to responsibilities--which is demonstrably false.

There is no connection. None whatsoever.

Think about this. Are rights something one consumes? Are they earned? Do they have to be paid for? Are they a reward of some kind? What about the rights of a child? Of people with grave illnesses? Of criminals and lunatics?

To state the obvious: rights are for everyone--including the irresponsible. They have nothing to do with responsibility. Without tracing the history of the notion of rights, or exploring their uncertain ontology, let me simply note here that the current concept arises from the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In the wake of the state-sponsored annihilation of millions of people in Nazi death camps, the Declaration was in fact an agreed statement of the obligations of states to their citizens.
Rights are, as Simpson somehow manages to observe, the reciprocal of these obligations. Rights are universal, not because they are given from on high, but because states are universal.

It is certainly the case that the word "rights" can be, and too often is, misused. I don't have the "right" to a parking space, or the "right" to public transport, or the "right" to know, in the crude journalistic sense. Moreover, in the daily political struggles in which we engage, we tend to assign particular names to general rights, giving the impression that we are inventing new ones.

The human rights set out in the Declaration do not include a "right" to same-sex marriage, or a "right" to abortion, for example. Strictly speaking, these are subsumed in existing rights: equality under the law and security of the person, respectively. Those of us in the struggle for "reproductive rights" are fighting for gender equality.
Those who promote "gay rights" support the extension of existing rights to gay citizens.

Assigning special rights that apply to some but not to others is a slippery slope, subverting, in fact, the very notion of rights. The left is falsely accused of that, but we sometimes leave ourselves vulnerable,
perhaps, by failing to place specific struggles explicitly in their wider context.

But in any case the proliferation of rights claims, some well-founded, some less so, requires a set of analytical tools that has nothing to do with notions of responsibility.
"Those trained in the law," says Simpson, "understand the links between 'rights' and 'responsibilities'." Nope. They don't. Because there are simply no such links.

Simpson's entire case is moral, not analytical. It is all assertion and no argument. "Rights," he says, "are fundamentally about me; responsibility is mostly about us. And we live in a 'me' society, with the sense of 'us' and responsibility and duty somewhat obscured by the 'rights' talk all around us."

This is utter rubbish. And dangerous rubbish, to boot.

Rights are all about "us." Rights are enjoyed by "us," defended by "us," fought for by "us," and died for by "us." If ever there was a collective notion, "rights" are it. Simpson, however, reduces rights to a kind of selfishness. Perhaps in some cases an appeal to rights is part of what conservatives like to call the "entitlement mentality." But guess what? We are entitled. That's the whole point. Rights aren't contingent upon character.

Responsibility is a different matter entirely. A moral call for responsible citizenship holds considerable appeal for progressives. We are, after all, social beings. But Simpson doesn't go very far with this.

'[R]esponsibility' means something different from those conservatives who use the word in a punitive way: that someone must be held 'responsible' for misdeeds or criminal acts. This is a narrow, stunted view of 'responsibility,' not wrong in and of itself but far too limited.

Not to come to the aid of my adversaries, but conservatives, like anyone else, know the difference between accountability and responsibility, and no conservative I know restricts the concept of responsibility in this absurd fashion. Simpson is just putting up a straw man here. Some of the better debates between conservatives and progressives, in fact, turn on profound differences about what responsibility entails ("social" versus "individual" responsibility, for example, or the notion of duty, or the role of the state).

I agree with Simpson that we have obligations to each other, and that a society is strong when we take those obligations seriously. That's a trite observation with which few would disagree. But our rights as citizens have nothing to do with our degree of engagement. And to suggest otherwise threatens the very foundation of those rights.

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