Rights and Obligations


Abstract

This is the first essay in a planned series, in which I aim to put some flesh on the theory and practice behind a future world of voluntary societies and minimal government.

Today, I’m going to look at ethical obligations, human rights and the relationship between the two. I’ll look at many examples of proposed obligations and rights. I’ll try to classify each into General (humanity wide), Contractual (a fit subject for voluntary mutual agreements) and Misguided.

Obligations

An obligation (ethical obligation) is a commitment to be made by individuals to other individuals. An obligation can be stated in a form beginning, “Individuals must…” or “Individuals must not…” An alternative is to use the imperative form: “Do x” or “Don’t do x.”

An example of an obligation, much touted by liberty lovers, is the so called “non aggression principle.” A form, in which it is often stated, is: “Don’t initiate physical force.”

From now on, I’m going to call this the non aggression obligation. This is because I reserve the term “principle” for political principles. For me, a principle is a ground on which the rules of a society are to be based. Principles can be stated in a form beginning “Society must…” or “Society must not…”

To make life easy for myself, I’m going to leave consideration of political principles for later. I’ll also leave aside any discussion of government, and of when, why or how individuals may (or may not) reasonably be denied particular rights, or forced to keep to particular obligations. Today, I’ll focus only on ethical obligations and their mirror image, human rights.

Rights

A right (human right) is a benefit which an individual acquires when everyone, with whom the individual deals, keeps to a particular obligation.

An example of a right is the (negative) right to life. This arises when everyone keeps to the Judaeo-Christian obligation, “Thou shalt not kill.” (Or, to be more specific: “Thou shalt not kill human beings against their wills.”)

One caveat is that any right is conditional on the individual himself keeping to the obligation. For example, killers can’t reasonably claim a “right to life!” This caveat (I’ll call it the expectation of obligations) can alternatively be stated as an obligation: “Don’t try to claim any right if you yourself disobey the corresponding obligation.”

Another caveat (I’ll call this the expectation of rights) is that a right may not be used as an excuse for violating some other right. For example, a right to use a footpath across someone’s property does not imply a right to trespass on other parts of their property. This, too, can be stated as an obligation: “Don’t try to claim that having a particular right gives you an excuse to violate other rights.”

Mapping obligations and rights

It’s often easy to map obligations to rights. A negative obligation, “Don’t do x,” maps into a right not to have x done to you. Much more rarely, a positive obligation, “You must do x,” can give rise to a right for others to x.

Sometimes, however, trying to map a proposed obligation into a right produces something that fails to bring any benefit to the individual. For example, the Jewish dietary obligation, “Don’t eat pork,” doesn’t map into any right that brings a general benefit to people today. What this shows is that such an obligation is, at best, a contractual obligation. That is, a group of people can agree to obey it among themselves, but they can’t reasonably seek to require others to obey it.

It’s also possible to do the mapping the other way, from right to obligation. A right not to have x done to you maps into the obligation, “Don’t do x.” This is why those that do x to others can’t claim any right not to have x done to them.

General, Contractual and Misguided

I’ll set out to classify the obligations and rights I discuss here into two categories: general and contractual. There will certainly be room for dispute about some of the classifications; but they’re a start.

By a general right or obligation, I mean one common to all humanity; or, in a wide context, to all civilized beings. Thus a general right is a right which accrues to everyone without exception, subject only to the individual keeping to his or her obligations – including the specific one which gives rise to the right. And a general obligation is one which gives rise to a general right.

General obligations and rights are ethically egalitarian. That is, each individual must keep to the same obligations as any other. And each individual has the same rights as any other. Indeed, one of these rights is what I call the expectation of ethical equality, and whose corresponding obligation I phrase as: “Don’t try to claim any right to do anything that you wouldn’t allow others the right to do in a similar situation.”

By a contractual right or obligation, on the other hand, I mean something on which people mutually and voluntarily agree. If individuals find a particular right valuable, so much so that it is worth their while to obey the corresponding obligation, then they can band together with like minded others in order to mutually enjoy that right. And they can, if they wish, shun those that fail to obey the obligation they value so highly.

Contractual obligations may be ethically egalitarian; the example I gave above, of a group of people who mutually agree not to eat pork, is one such. But contractual obligations may be, and usually are, asymmetrical. One person gets a job done, and another pays him for it, for example. There are as many different contracts of this type as there are combinations of individuals or groups who wish to trade in some way.

Some “rights” are put forward as if they are general rights, but turn out on examination not to be so. Such claimed rights are, at best, contractual rights; but some individuals will find the cost of keeping to the obligation too heavy in comparison to the value they place on the right. So, I’ll classify these claimed rights as Misguided.

Positive and negative

Some obligations are positive obligations. They impose on individuals a positive requirement to act in a particular way. Others are negative obligations. The requirement they impose is not to do a particular thing.

In the same way, there are positive and negative rights. A positive obligation gives rise to a positive right, and vice versa; and a negative obligation to a negative right, and vice versa. However, many rights which are actually negative rights are named as if they were rights to something. For example, the “right to life” isn’t a positive right, but a negative one. It’s a right not to be killed.

The Golden Rule

Now, a few worked examples. One of the oldest of all ethical obligations, widespread in many different cultures, is Confucius’ Golden Rule. It comes in negative and positive forms.

The negative, and original, form is: “Do not do to others what you would not wish done to you.” On the assumption that others’ tastes are similar to yours, the corresponding right is not to have done to you things you don’t like; and so, not to be harmed. To remove this assumption, the obligation might better be put as: “Don’t do to others what they don’t want done to them.” It seems, to me at least, that this is a good candidate to be a general, negative obligation. For the benefit of not having something unpleasant or harmful done to you is, for all except psychopaths, greater than the dubious pleasure of doing similar unpleasantness or harm to another.

The non aggression obligation, “Don’t initiate physical force,” is a special case of the negative form of the Golden Rule. The corresponding right is not to have physical force initiated against you; this can be put as the right to security of person. It can also be seen as a right to peace.

The positive form of the Golden Rule can be put as: “Do as you would be done by.” Or – with the same shift of person as in the negative case: “Treat others as they wish to be treated.” As general advice, this sounds fair enough. But as a positive obligation, to be kept to at all times, it defies common sense. When others mistreat us, it seems to say, we should continue to treat them as if nothing had happened. If accepted, it gives everyone an apparent “right” to be treated well by others, regardless of how badly they themselves behave. It disallows self defence, and prohibits any kind of justice system. If put into practice, it allows psychopaths to rule the world.

My own solution is to replace the obligation by: “Treat others at least as well as they treat you.” This obliges us to be polite, friendly and peaceful to those who are polite, friendly, and peaceful towards us; while, nevertheless, allowing us to defend ourselves against those that harm us or try to harm us, and to seek to bring them to justice and punish them for their crimes. And the corresponding right is, that we should be treated at least as well as we treat others; or otherwise put, we should not be treated worse than we treat others. This right is a general right to justice.

Positive general rights

There aren’t many valid positive general rights. Many things touted as positive “rights” – for example, social security – aren’t valid rights, because to implement them requires other people’s rights to be violated. In liberty circles, this seems to lead to a view that there’s no such thing as a (general) positive right. And thus, that all real human rights arise from prohibitions such as the non aggression obligation.

I disagree with this view. I’ve already exhibited one positive general right; namely, the right to justice. And I’m going to show three more obligations which I classify as positive general obligations, and which therefore lead to positive general rights.

The first of these I call the restitution obligation. I’ll put this as: If you cause harm to others, compensate them. This is the obligation which kicks in when the negative Golden Rule has been violated, and harm has been committed. The corresponding right is: if you have been harmed, you have a right to restitution for that harm from the perpetrator or perpetrators.

The second is the parenthood obligation. If you want the privilege of having children, and so to have your genes transmitted to the next generation, then you must take on the corresponding responsibilities. The way I put this is: If you have children, bring them up and educate them to be civilized human beings.

The key to understanding this, and turning it into a right, is to see that the obligation is on the parents (or, at need, on those who agree to take on the obligation if the parents cannot). Each individual has a general obligation to do these things for their own children. But no-one has any general obligation to do them for other people’s children. Any such positive obligation towards children from a third party can therefore only be a contractual one; for example, when a schoolmaster takes on the responsibility of educating a child in exchange for a financial payment. Thus, the corresponding general right is: individuals can expect those, who choose to have children, to discharge their responsibilities to bring up and to educate each child, without requiring any positive action from themselves.

The third is the obligation to keep your contracts; or, more specifically, to keep to your side of any contracts you voluntarily enter into. By entering into contracts with others, whether formal or informal, we can gain mutual betterment. But contracts only work when both sides keep to them. Leaving aside details like termination clauses and force majeure, the obligation to keep your side of a contract leads to the right of expectation that the other party or parties will keep their side of the bargain too.

My plan for the rest of this essay

What I’m going to do now is re-state the obligations and rights, which I’ve discussed so far, in the form of a table. After that, I’m going to list some more obligations and rights from various sources, and show them in the same tabular form. These sources include the secular among the Judaeo-Christian Ten Commandments, and the UN Declaration of Human Rights. And lastly, I’ll throw in a few curve-balls of my very own.

I’ll try to state the obligations as simply as I can. The caveats that rights can only be enjoyed by those who keep to the corresponding obligations, and that a right may not be used as a means of, or as an excuse for, violating some other right, are implied in all cases.

There are situations, where it’s possible that a right might reasonably be violated with the intention of avoiding a greater violation. For example, arresting someone on justifiable suspicion that they have committed theft. For the most part, I ignore these possibilities here; they’re for another day. Except that, where a right as stated claims immunity from some arbitrary action, I’ve replaced the word arbitrary in the obligation by “(without good and provable reason).”

Examples already discussed

Name Obligation Right Classification
Golden Rule (negative form) Don’t do to others what they don’t want done to them Right not to have harms or unpleasantnesses done to you General, Negative
Non aggression Don’t initiate physical force Right to security of person; right to peace General, Negative
Golden Rule (positive form) Treat others as they wish to be treated “Right” to good treatment regardless of behaviour Misguided
Golden Rule (my form) Treat others at least as well as they treat you Right to justice; not to be treated worse than you treat others General, Positive
Restitution obligation If you cause harm to others, compensate them Right to restitution for harms General, Positive
Parenthood obligation If you have children, bring them up and educate them to be civilized human beings Expectation that others will discharge their responsibilities to bring up and educate their children General, Positive
Contract obligation Keep to your side of any contracts you voluntarily enter into Expectation that others will keep to their side of the contracts too General, Positive
Expectation of obligations Don’t try to claim any right if you yourself disobey the corresponding obligation Expectation that others will keep to their obligations General, Negative
Expectation of rights Don’t try to claim that having a particular right gives you an excuse to violate other rights Expectation that others will respect your rights General, Negative
Expectation of ethical equality Don’t try to claim any right to do anything that you wouldn’t allow others the right to do in a similar situation Expectation that you have the same rights as others General, Negative

The ten commandments

This table includes only the valid secular commandments, 6 to 9. The religious ones 1 to 4 are all Contractual, since they apply only to those who choose to subscribe to the religion. No. 5 is the mirror image of the parenthood obligation. And No. 10 is impossible to keep to, and so Misguided.

Name Obligation Right Classification
Sixth commandment Thou shalt not kill (human beings against their wills) Right to life (negative) General, Negative
Seventh commandment Thou shalt not commit adultery Right to marital fidelity Contractual, Negative
Eighth commandment Thou shalt not steal Right of property (basic) General, Negative
Ninth commandment Thou shalt not bear false witness (against thy neighbour, or anyone else) Right to truth and honesty General, Negative

The UN declaration on Human Rights

Here, I’ll leave out those rights, such as presumption of innocence, which are concerned with the relationship between individuals and some form of government.

Name Obligation Right Classification
§1: Dignity Don’t treat anyone as less than a human being Right to be treated as a human being General, Negative
§1: Rights Don’t violate others’ rights Expectation that others will respect your rights General, Negative
§2: Non-discrimination Don’t deny rights to anyone because of who they are or where they come from Expectation that others will not deny you your rights because of who you are or where you come from General, Negative
§3: Life Don’t kill anyone against his or her will Right to life (negative) General, Negative
§3: Liberty Don’t obstruct anyone’s freedom to choose and act as they wish Right to make your own choices; right to act on them General, Negative
§3: Security of person Don’t initiate physical force Right to security of person; right to peace General, Negative
§4: No slavery Don’t treat anyone as a slave (Right against slavery is implied by right to liberty) General, Negative
§5: No torture Don’t torture anyone (Right against torture is implied by right to security of person) General, Negative
§5: No cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment Don’t behave with cruelty towards anyone, or subject anyone to inhuman or degrading treatment (Right is implied by rights to dignity and security of person) General, Negative
§9: No arbitrary arrest Don’t arrest anyone (without good and provable reason) Right against arbitrary arrest General, Negative
§9: No arbitrary detention Don’t detain anyone (without good and provable reason) Right against arbitrary detention General, Negative
§12: Privacy Don’t interfere with anyone’s right to keep their thoughts and actions to themselves when they choose to Right to personal privacy General, Negative
§12: No interference with family or home Don’t interfere with anyone’s home or family Right to non-interference with family and home General, Negative
§12: No interference with correspondence Don’t intercept, copy or otherwise interfere with anyone’s communications or correspondence Right to privacy and non-interference in communications and correspondence General, Negative
§12: No attacks on honour and reputation Don’t untruthfully or deceitfully smear anyone’s reputation Right to earned reputation General, Negative
§13: Freedom of movement Don’t obstruct anyone’s freedom of movement, as long as they don’t trespass Right to freedom of movement General, Negative
§16(1): Right to marry Don’t obstruct consenting adults from marrying Right to marry General, Negative
§16(2): Free and full consent to marriage Don’t require anyone to marry against their will Right of free and full consent to marriage General, Negative
§17(1): Right to own property alone Don’t require human beings to share their property with others against their wills Right to individual ownership General, Negative
§17(2): No arbitrary deprivation of property Don’t take anyone’s property (without good and provable reason) Right against arbitrary deprivation of property General, Negative
§18: Freedom of thought Don’t obstruct anyone’s freedom to think their own thoughts Freedom of thought General, Negative
§18: Freedom of conscience Don’t obstruct anyone’s freedom to make their own judgements according to their own conscience Freedom of conscience General, Negative
§18: Freedom to hold religion or belief Don’t obstruct human beings’ freedom to hold their own religious beliefs, including atheism or agnosticism Freedom of religion or belief General, Negative
§18: Freedom to manifest religion Don’t obstruct human beings’ freedom to worship in their own way Freedom of worship General, Negative
§19: Freedom of opinion Don’t obstruct human beings’ freedom to hold their own opinions Freedom of opinion; right to hold opinions without interference General, Negative
§19: Freedom of expression Don’t obstruct human beings’ freedom to express their own opinions Freedom of expression; freedom of speech General, Negative
§19: Freedom to seek information and ideas Don’t obstruct human beings’ freedom to seek or to receive information or ideas through any media Right to seek information and ideas through any media General, Negative
§19: Freedom to impart information and ideas Don’t obstruct human beings’ freedom to impart information or ideas through any media Right to impart information and ideas through any media General, Negative
§20(1): Freedom of association Don’t obstruct human beings’ freedom to associate with whomever they wish Freedom to associate General, Negative
§20(1): Freedom of peaceful assembly Don’t obstruct human beings’ freedom to meet peacefully with whomever they wish Freedom to assemble peacefully General, Negative
§20(2): Freedom from compulsion to belong Don’t require anyone to belong to any particular association Freedom not to belong to an association General, Negative
§22: Social security You must pay for others to enjoy certain “rights,” regardless of their behaviour “Right” to force others to pay for certain “rights” Misguided; see below for my own version
§22: Right to insurance or mutual aid (my version of “Social security”) Don’t obstruct human beings’ freedom to insure, or to associate for the purpose of insuring, against conditions adverse to their economic security or social welfare Right to seek insurance or mutual aid; right to seek protection against unemployment (§23(1)); right to seek just and favourable remuneration (§23(3)); right to form trade unions (§23(4)) General, Negative
§23: Right to work, free choice of employment Don’t obstruct human beings’ freedom to seek work, or to contract to perform work or to have work performed Right to seek work; right to contract for work; right to free choice of employment General, Negative
§24: “Right” to rest, leisure, limited working hours, holidays N/A (Right is already covered by “No slavery” and “Right to insurance or mutual aid” above) The right as stated is Misguided
§25(1): “Right” to a minimum standard of living N/A (Right is already covered by “Right to insurance or mutual aid” above) The right as stated is Misguided
§25(2): “Right” to social protection for mothers and children N/A (Right is already covered by Parenthood Obligation, above) The right as stated is Misguided
§26(1): “Right” to “free” and compulsory education N/A (Right is already covered by Parenthood Obligation, above) Misguided
§26(3): Right of parents to choose their children’s education Don’t obstruct parents’ freedom to choose how their children are educated Right of parental choice in education General, Negative
§27(2): Intellectual property rights Don’t use anyone’s intellectual products in such a way as to obstruct their ability to sell those products to others (Limited) copyright General, Negative

A few curve-balls

These are taken from Annex B of my “Blueprint for Human Civilization” (http://www.honestcommonsense.co.uk/2015/07/a-blueprint-for-human-civilization.html). The numbers are the paragraph numbers in that document.

Name Obligation Right Classification
§B6: Right against fraud Don’t commit any wrong against any person or their property through fraud, deceit or trickery (Right is implied by Golden Rule (negative form) and Ninth commandment) General, Negative
§B13: Right against trespass Don’t enter others’ property, except where the owner has authorized unconditional access (such as easements), or where the owner has authorized conditional access and you meet the conditions Right to set borders around or within your property; right against trespass General, Negative
§B14: Right to be alone Don’t interfere with anyone’s right to hold themselves away from the company of others when they choose to Right to be alone General, Negative
§B17: Right against stalking Don’t stalk or unreasonably follow anyone Right against stalking (including electronic stalking) General, Negative
§B18: Right against arbitrary surveillance Don’t spy on anyone (without good and provable reason why particular individuals should be subjected to surveillance) Right against unreasonable surveillance General, Negative
§B19: Right against arbitrary search Don’t search anyone’s bodies or possessions (without good and provable reason why particular individuals should be subjected to search) Right against unreasonable search; right against random search General, Negative
§B21: Right to say No Don’t coerce anyone to enter into, or not to enter into, any contract against their will Right to say No. Includes the rights not to be coerced into marriage, and not to be compelled to belong to an association General, Negative
§B25: Right to pursue happiness Don’t obstruct anyone’s freedom to pursue their own happiness Right to pursue happiness General, Negative
§B26: Right to self defence Don’t obstruct anyone’s freedom to defend themselves against aggression, or (subject to reasonable conditions) to keep and carry weapons for the purpose of defending themselves or others against aggression Right to self defence; right to keep and carry weapons General, Negative
§B29: Right to enjoy property Don’t obstruct anyone’s freedom to enjoy and to use their property as they see fit Right to enjoy and to use property General, Negative
§B31: Freedom of movement (non-encirclement) Don’t encircle anyone’s property, or unreasonably obstruct their passage in any direction Right to free movement; expectation that property owners will allow reasonable easements General, Negative
§B34: Right to a free marketplace Don’t obstruct or try to obstruct, in any way, the open economic market Right to a free marketplace General, Negative
§B35: Right to free trade Don’t obstruct anyone’s access to the open economic market, either as seller or as buyer Right of access to the free marketplace General, Negative
§B36: Right to pursue betterment Don’t obstruct anyone’s attempts to better themselves and those they care about Right to pursue betterment General, Negative

In conclusion

Among the general obligations and rights I’ve examined here, most are negative. Many of the negative obligations turn out to be particular cases of the Golden Rule: “Don’t do to others what they don’t want done to them.” There is, therefore, a good case for putting this rule first and foremost. Most of the negative rights I’ve listed here, apart from the three expectations of obligations, rights and ethical equality, can be derived from this obligation.

Beyond the negatives, I uncovered four positive general obligations. One is a positive form of the Golden Rule, which in my formulation becomes “Treat others at least as well as they treat you,” and which I see as the right to justice. The others are the restitution obligation, the parenthood obligation and the obligation to keep your contracts. Adding these to the negative Golden Rule gives, in my opinion, a decent candidate basis for a “common law of humanity.”

But any ethical code, however well conceived, is worthless if people don’t take any notice of it. In a follow up essay, therefore, I plan to look at how this code might be evolved in order to support a minimal government, able to enforce the obligations and defend the rights.

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