Fundamental Points on the Relationship between Rights and Obligations

Douglas P. McManaman
May 7, 2018
Reproduced with Permission

I was seriously taken aback recently when a large number of my senior students -- some of the brightest in the province and who have had 12 years of Catholic education -- insisted that I have a right to lie to them if I so choose, and that I have a right to a temporary sexual relationship with anyone who wishes to flirt with me, such as a new school secretary, etc. After pressing them for about eighty minutes on what it means to have a right and where rights come from, all to no avail of course, I decided to switch gears and address the meaning of rights. I have a copy of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in my classroom, signed by Paul Martin, but I use it not as an example of a sound constitution, but as an example of a deficient one. The argument was made that one fundamental defect of Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms is that it makes no mention of obligations. This is problematic because there is no understanding of rights without obligations (responsibilities, duties, etc.). What follows is a basic analysis and articulation of this idea.

The Latin word for 'right' is jus, from which is derived the English word 'justice'. Justice is the perpetual will to render what is due to another, either an individual, an organization, or the civil community as a whole. Hence, justice implies a debt of some kind. If you lend me $10 on condition that I pay you back within a few days, then justice demands that I pay that $10 in a timely fashion (I owe you, have a debt to you for, $10). What this means is that you have a right (a claim) to that money within the span of a few days.

But I have not borrowed any money from you nor entered into any other kind of contract with you, so what do I owe you? The answer to this question depends on an understanding of who and what you are. You are a human kind of being, and so am I. We share the same nature (a human nature). As a human being, you and I both have a natural propensity/desire/inclination to live, to exist, to be and to be most fully. That is simply a basic fact.

It was Aristotle who defined the good as "that which all things desire". If something is an object of desire, it is seen as good (desirable). It may not be truly good, but only apparently good (appears to be good). For example, I may desire to smoke pot, and thus I see it as a good -- despite the fact that doing so is not at all good for my brain, inhibiting as it does the integration of the limbic system with the prefrontal cortex, keeping a person in a perpetual state of emotional immaturity. Drug use is thus apparently good, but not truly good -- it does not contribute to my own fullness of being, but diminishes it. Conversely, something that is truly good may be undesirable to us (apparently bad, but truly good). For example, taking medicine is undesirable, but good for us; confronting evil may be undesirable, but good for us, etc.

The reason we can distinguish between apparent and true goods is that the most fundamental and universal desire/inclination/propensity is to be (to exist, to continue to live). If someone were to pick up a large stick and make to hit you with it, you would naturally react by blocking it with your arms in an attempt to protect the most vital parts of you, such as your head or heart. You and I naturally want to exist. Hence, existence or being is good (some desires do not promote my own fullness of being, hence they only appear to be good).

This logically implies that you and I see human life as basically good. Now the first and most fundamental principle of morality is: good is to be done; evil is to be avoided. So, on a very general level, you and I have a duty to will and do the good - whenever and wherever I am able to do good. That is the most general precept of justice. You immediately know that you are inclined to continue to live. For example, if you need food desperately, then you ought to go to your fridge and get yourself something to eat. The reason is that your life is basically good. Consequently, I have no right to prevent you from doing that (standing in front of the refrigerator). You have a right to whatever you need to fulfil your fundamental obligation (ought), in this case, to preserve your life.

That is why I have not only an obligation not to stand in front of your refrigerator to keep you from getting what you need to live, but I have an obligation not to kill you -- because you have an obligation to take care of your life (because your life is good), and you have a right to whatever you need to fulfill that obligation -- and you need me to get out of the way. Extending the principle of non-contradiction, your life cannot be good and not good at the same time and in the same respect; in other words, if your life is basically good, then it is basically good, and that means I too have an obligation to revere your life, to respect it as basically good. I ought not to kill you. Hence, your right to live is nothing other than my obligation (and your obligation) not to kill you.

Rights are not first principles; rather, obligations are first principles. Rights are derived from fundamental human obligations towards human goods. Wherever there is a genuine right, there is a prior or more fundamental obligation. If there is no obligation, then there is no genuine right.

Sample Table of Alleged versus Genuine Rights

Concluding Thoughts

For the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to make no mention of obligations is to imply that the civil community as a whole has no right to expect anything from you and me. In other words, rights are a purely individual matter. But there are all sorts of behaviors that the civil community has a right to expect from you and me. Hence, you and I have some fundamental obligations towards the common good (the good of the civil community as a whole). For example, we have a duty to develop our own human capital (marketable skills, knowledge, and experience), an obligation not to waste tax dollars by skipping school, a duty to contribute to the common good of the civil community, a duty to obey laws that protect the common good, a duty not to harm society (i.e., not to engage in treason), an obligation to study, etc. A charter of rights alone has done a great deal to nurture a generation of citizens with a deeply entrenched sense of entitlement and a deficient sense of personal responsibility.

Finally, a Charter so vague in detail and precision stands in need of it; but who will provide that precision and content? That vacuum has been filled in by unelected judges; but in a democracy, that is the task of the people. The danger is that some judges may be activists operating out of a philosophical framework (typically postmodern) that is at odds with the majority of the people. A charter of vague rights without definite obligations allows any judge to interpret a proposed law in a way that conflicts with his own interpretation of that charter. The result is a constitution created by an oligarchy. The problem here is that knowledge is widely dispersed among the people, not concentrated in the small circle of a few unelected judges. A Charter of Rights and Freedoms without an explicit articulation of the obligations that ground those rights does much to undermine a democracy.