We live in an age of human rights – it seems, sometimes, as if everybody is trumping common sense by claiming a human right. For example, claiming rights to a family life trumps public safety in many cases of deportation. However, it’s not all negative. Stephen Pinker cites the ‘human rights revolution’ as one of the factors making, in our times, for a more peaceable world than the world has ever known. The Declaration of Human Rights has been mostly beneficial, affecting both the Law and public attitudes.
But it must be remembered, every claim to a human right is a claim that somebody else has a duty or responsibility to provide it. There are no rights that do not make moral claims on other people. If you were cast up alone on a desert island, you would have no rights because there would be nobody to claim against. Nevertheless, you would have a responsibility to yourself and to the environment. You would still have a duty to live a good life even on your own. It is clear, therefore, that duties have some kind of priority over rights.
Every time I hear a discussion about rights, I ask myself what claim is being made about other people’s duties. Say, a gay couple claims a right to adopt. This is a claim that other people have a duty to facilitate that adoption. And that this duty over-rides everything else including the provider’s own beliefs. And do people have a right to their own beliefs? A question for another day. But many of the great battles in the human rights revolution have been on just this ground – the right to hold your own beliefs. Certainly, rights can come into conflict with each other, though it is not pc to admit this. It would appear, some rights are more equal than others.
We learn about rights and duties in the primary school playground when we begin to develop notions of fairness – when we develop from notions of ‘It’s not fair on me’ to ‘It’s not fair on him or her.’ The world of rights is grounded in ‘It’s not fair on me.’ The world of duties is grounded in ‘It’s not fair on him or her.’ To claim you have a right is to claim I have a duty. We should think more about duties and when (and if) we have them. As George Eliot said, after rejecting all other metaphysical beliefs, “There is always Duty.” I would like those that claim their human rights also to think just as vehemently about what their own human duties might be.
© Nicholas Bielby, 2017