Rights! Obligations?

“Human rights matter to me because humans deserve to be happy and [be] treated equally [and] fairly”.

So reads a recent tweet on Twitter. While we might commend the writer for his empathy for others, we need to interrogate that word “deserve”. It’s gotten tangled with “rights”, another problematic word, and nowadays we argue about what people “deserve” with as much partisan and pointless passion as we used to argue about sin and salvation, not all that many human generations ago. In the United States at least, while we don’t necessarily deserve happiness any more than anyone anywhere else, we are given the right to pursue it.

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U.S. Declaration of Independence

When some assert their chief right as freedom from government as much as possible (though who then enforces that right is unclear), while others desire government in order to enforce their claims to rights others may not wish to honor, we have inevitable conflict.

One obstacle to ever resolving these debate: You can’t see anyone’s “just deserts” or their rights simply by looking. More emphatically, while some truths may indeed be “self-evident”, to quote the framers of the American Declaration of Independence, rights aren’t among them. Or if I do declare some core set of rights to be supreme, I end up endlessly qualifying them and loading them with exceptions. The United States, once proud of its promulgation and defense of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in its Declaration of Independence, routinely denies one or two or all three of these to a substantial number of its citizens — through exceptions and exemptions like the death penalty, massive incarceration, and a now near-permanent, legislatively-enforced and growing economic under-class. (Do we have a right to non-hypocritical government, or non-ironic citizenship?)

If rights are to mean anything coherent, they mean only what a particular group is willing to defend for its members, and to impose on them. There can be no such thing as a “universal right” for the simple reason that there is no such thing as a “universal society” where all of us are members …

Article 1 Section 4 of the Sovermian Constitution reads in part: “the heart of all social compacts consists of fulfilling agreements and respecting boundaries defining persons and their property”. These are things every social entity agrees to establish in a form consistent with its culture and history. From friendships to families, clubs and tribes to nations, we gather and negotiate what our gatherings mean for us corporately, and for individual members. If rights are to mean anything coherent, they mean only what a particular group is willing to defend for its members, and to enforce on them. There can be no such thing as a “universal right” for the simple reason that there is no such thing as a “universal society” in which all of us are members, and to whose compact of obligations and rights all of us have given our assent.

To claim a right is to expect others to defend it for you, and to enforce it on others. Our rights depend on others around us, just as theirs depend on us. Yet we hear virtually nothing about this whole other half of the social compact.

What is it? And why should we care about it?

Article 1 Section 5 of the Sovermian Constitution reads: “the political realization of obligations and rights enacts such a compact”. Obligations and rights: what we owe, as well as what we deserve. We’ve kept our focus increasingly on rights, while neglecting obligations, the completion of the social compact, the very thing that permits rights to exist, and gives them their value and savor and potential to ease our way toward the happiness we’re pursuing. (Is all the fun in the chase?)

The Preamble to Article 2 of the Sovermian Constitution reads: “acknowledging that where we hope to benefit is a guide to where we likewise have obligations to help to preserve others’ corresponding benefits, we assent to and assume these obligations”. In the words of the old song, “you can’t have one without the other”.

Now I do not cite these clauses from our Constitution as any sort of exemplar, or to tout the supposed superiority of the Sovermian social compact over any other, but rather to observe the opposite: so concerned have we Sovermians become in the face of historical examples of these deep problems that we hope by writing such things into our founding documents we might have occasion to consider them more frequently, and to amend, whenever needful, our laws and statutes and understandings to keep pace with the fluid elusiveness of human consciousness that underlies and drives this whole project.

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NOTE: Individual posts express the opinions and perspectives of the author and do not necessarily reflect official Sovermian policy or practice, unless explicitly indicated as such in a particular post.


 

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