According to Facebook postings, the signs were posted around Tottenville, New York around the middle of April 2020: “End the Lockdown Rally,” they announced. “No mask needed. Bring your children. Non-essential workers. If you’re sick still come, it’s your right!” The rally was scheduled for Sunday, April 19th on the town’s Conference House lawn. The signs ended by urging readers to “Keep America Great,” and were signed “#MAGA #ENDTHESHUTDOWNNYC.”
The same sources report that at the appointed hour, no one showed up on the Conference House lawn except police officers looking to interview anyone who DID show up. This leads me to wonder whether the posters were parts of a juvenile spoof – perhaps even one perpetrated by people of my own liberal persuasion.
But what particularly struck me about the posters was the phrase: “it’s your right.”
· Your right to come out in the midst of a pandemic, ignoring the best advice of health care professionals world-wide.
· Your right to endanger yourself and to make yourself a burden on the health care system.
· Your right, potentially, to infect others, cause others to die in agony or suffer life-long complications.
“It’s your right!”
I’ve long wondered about the fixation we citizens of the United States seem to have with “rights.”
It’s almost a reflex with us. Some of us propose that health care is a “right.” Many assert a “right” to own and use guns. A “right” to water; a “right” to clean air; a “right” to an abortion; a “right” to use our property as we wish. And when rights come into conflict, as inevitably they do, we seldom ask dispassionately: “Why do you think you have that right, and what does your having it mean in practical terms?” Instead we fight over whether the right exists and which rights should take priority. These fights seem seldom to be resolved. Even the rights of ethnic and social minorities, seemingly nailed down by the 14th amendment to the constitution, remains a subject of contention, and the right of women to vote, theoretically resolved by the 19th amendment, has been slow to enhance women’s political influence.
I posted an inquiry on Facebook, asking if, in the experience of my correspondents, citizens of other countries are similarly rights-obsessed. The responses were generally in the negative, with a few understandable exceptions – Hong Kong, for example, where recent history has made people especially sensitive about rights-infringement. Most correspondents shared my impression that rights-fixation is largely a symptom of residence in these United States of America – whose residents I’ll call USers to distinguish us from citizens of Mexico and Canada.
I hasten to certify that I am a USer born and bred, with a birth certificate to prove it, 77 years a resident of the United States with only a few years spent elsewhere. I am engaging here in self-examination as much as I am examination of my fellow-citizens.
What is a “Right?”
The relevant definition of “right” in Merriam-Webster online is “a moral or legal entitlement to have or obtain something or to act in a certain way.” We have a “right” then, if we are entitled to something, or to act somehow. “Right” and “entitlement” are synonyms.
Why Are We Entitled?
So, why do we think we have “rights?” Why do we think ourselves entitled to things, conditions, states of existence?
I suppose we can trace the notion back at least to the 13th century Magna Carta, but my impression is that explicit rights-based intellectual arguments mostly began to be expressed during the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries. The United States of America was another product of the Enlightenment, and the notion of “rights” is very explicit in this country’s foundational documents. The second paragraph of the 1776 Declaration of Independence begins with the words:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights….
Capitalized in the original. And in 1789, the first ten amendments to the then shiny new United States constitution were referred to as the “Bill of Rights,” as they still are.
So our possession of rights has been fundamental to the thinking of USers since the nation’s beginnings.
But what does it mean to have a “right?”
The Right to Life
Take the first of the rights listed in the Declaration of Independence: we have the right to life. Is this true?
Do I have a right to life? I don’t see why I do, or how I could, at least as a prospective matter. I am glad to be alive; it is a privilege to be alive; I enjoy being alive, but was I, in principle before becoming alive – in some pre-living or incorporeal state – entitled to be this way? I don’t see why, or even how.
Or did I acquire this right after becoming alive? Being alive, do I have the right to keep myself so as long and as well as I can? This makes more sense to me, but it’s not without complications. Am I entitled to stay alive if I’m a burden to society? If it costs a great deal to keep me alive, and encumbers my family and friends? Do I have the right to stay alive at 77, when I no longer make much contribution to society?
Inuit people, reportedly, used to put their very elderly out on ice floes to freeze – a relatively pleasant way to go, I’m told – and the elders are said to have been OK with this. Were the elders surrendering a fundamental right, or were they just being responsible members of society?
And of course, there’s the big question of just when “life” begins. I was conceived, according to my mother, in early 1942 atop a cedar chest she and my father had received as a wedding gift. My wife and I tried to replicate the feat when we inherited the chest, and concluded that my parents had been truly devoted procreators. In any event, did I acquire my right to life atop that chest, as soon as my father’s sperm found its way into my mother’s ovum? Or was it at some later point in my development? If the latter, when?
I realize that these are fraught questions; my point is just that they are not easily answered – unless you do so on the basis of faith, which seems inconsistent with Enlightenment thinking.
Do I, perhaps, have the right to keep myself alive when I’m somehow endangered? This certainly seems plausible, but I wonder if it’s exactly a matter of “rights.” It’s instinctive for me to step out of the way of a speeding automobile, or duck when a mass murderer starts shooting, but is this exactly a “right?” If it’s instinctual, can it be an entitlement? This seems to me an exercise in semantics, and it leads me in circles.
The Right to Liberty
So let’s try liberty. Do I have the right to be free, to not be enslaved? Freedom, I think, is a very desirable state; like life, it’s one I enjoy and do not want to give up. But is it my right? Am I entitled to it? If so, why, and how does this entitlement come to be? I don’t have an answer to that; it seems easier to assert than to support with evidence.
And what does “liberty” exactly amount to? I saw a posting on Facebook today about a guy who wandered all over a grocery store, unmasked and happily picking stuff up and putting it down, perhaps spreading COVID-19 virus in all directions, and loudly proclaimed to the disapproving folks around him that he had the right to do this because in the US we have freedom. Freedom and liberty are pretty much synonymous; was this fellow at liberty to risk the health, even the lives, of those around him simply because – well, because he’s free? Where would this notion take us – and civil society?
The Right to a Pursuit of Happiness
My right to pursue happiness seems to me even more laden with ambiguity. Being a pretty glum sort of guy, I’m not even sure what “happiness” involves, and I’m not sure I’d feel better informed if I were a cock-eyed optimist. There’s evidence that many USers equate happiness with acquiring goods – getting a big glitzy house, a fancy car, a yacht, a trophy spouse. Can/should they do this as a matter of “right?” If so, why?
What about the consequences of that right’s exercise? It surely does have consequences, by affecting others. Is the trophy spouse happy? How about the servants in the big house? The crew of the yacht? Perhaps more important are the environmental impacts of happiness pursuit. Construction of the glitzy house expends Earth’s resources, uses up land, kills trees and bushes and worms who may not have been happy to be sacrificed. Construction and operation of the yacht depletes resources too, and contributes to pollution of the ocean.
In the unlikely event I were able to build a glitzy house, buy a yacht, or shack up with a trophy spouse, would this be something to which I have a right? I don’t see why.
But of course the right, as articulated in the Declaration, is not to happiness itself, but to its pursuit. Do I have the right to pursue a glitzy house, a yacht, a trophy spouse? I can easily enough say “yes,” but I’m not sure what it achieves.
The Right to Guns
One right that’s pretty clearly articulated in the United States constitution is the right to own a weapon. The Second Amendment says that:
…the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed
Pretty straightforward, but it’s complicated by its prefatory language, which relates this “right” to the need to maintain “a well-regulated militia,” and by the great post-constitution expansion in the range of weaponry arguably definable as “arms.” These complications have intrigued courts for generations, and show little sign of being resolved in the near future.
Setting aside the militia argument, do I have the right to bear any kind of arms? I don’t know when or how it was decided, but it seems to be widely understood that I am not entitled to a nuclear weapon, but what about a really big non-nuclear bomb? Or a smaller one? Or a Claymore Mine like those my pacifist daughter was taught to arm and fire during her brief career in the Army National Guard? Or a machine gun? Or a semi-automatic weapon? To what do I not have a right, and why do I not?
Rights and Responsibilities
Without belaboring the argument, it seems to me that assertions of “rights” lead us into quicksands of ambiguity – or perhaps onto pinnacles of opinion, from which we shout toward other pinnacles, stamping our feet and waving our arms. Arguments based on rights are almost guarantied to be irresoluble.
I wonder what would happen if we USers dialed back our preoccupation with rights and instead paid more attention to their flip-side – to responsibilities.
Focusing on responsibilities relieves us of our hangup with “what’s mine,” and causes us to focus on the conditions of others. It shifts our attention from “how can I get as much as I can for me and mine” – which is surely at the core of “rights”-based arguments – to “what should I do to take care of others?”
Consider the “right to life.” What if it were rephrased as a responsibility to respect life? I for one have learned to respect – or at least try to respect – all living creatures, whether animal or vegetable, and for that matter even mineral. This doesn’t mean that I don’t mow them, trim them, cut them down, eat them or otherwise exploit them, but it does mean I try to do so with respect. Many if not all indigenous groups that I know of or have read about typically offer prayers of thanks to plants and animals before taking them for food; some flint-knappers offer prayers to stones before they begin working them into tools and weapons. These prayers, I think, come down to an acknowledgement that we are all in this existence together, that we are interdependent and reliant on one another.
Exercising responsibility for the lives of others means, I think, trying to put oneself in the other’s shoes – or hooves or feet or flippers – and to impinge on those lives as little as possible while maintaining our own.
Of course, the “right to life” is fundamental to the “debate,” if it can be called that, over abortion. Does thinking about abortion from the standpoint of responsibility help us at all with this horribly divisive issue? Probably not much, but maybe a little.
After her adventure on the cedar chest, my mother told me many years later, she made vigorous attempts to abort me. I was – to say the least – an inconvenient embryo; the Depression was still underway, the U.S. had just been attacked and entered World War II, my father had answered the call and left an executive position in the automobile industry to become a Naval officer. So my mother jumped off chairs and otherwise did what she could to flush me out of her system, but I resisted. Perhaps I was defending my right to life, though as an adult I did not begrudge my mother her priorities.
Did my mother have a responsibility toward me as a fetus? Yes, I’d say so, and so did my father. But does that mean that she should not have tried to abort me? I’d say, not necessarily, any more than my responsibility toward other life forms means I should never consume the flesh of a chicken or a stalk of celery. We acknowledge our responsibilities, we try to exercise them, and we accept our faults when our exercises fall short. In my parents’ day the options for birth control were very limited; today, I’d say we have the responsibility to employ the methods that are available today to prevent inconvenient, unwanted pregnancies. When one happens, we have the responsibility to balance the interests of the fetus with the interests of the parents and everyone else – including our collective interest in population control – and make a rational decision. Are we violating the rights of a fetus if we abort it? Sure we are, just as we’re violating the rights of a chicken that we butcher or a tree that we cut; we ought to be sorry for this, grateful for the life sacrificed. We ought to offer appropriate prayers; but we ought to make the decision that reflects our best judgment as to the welfare of all concerned.
What about the “right to liberty?” What if we called instead for respecting the liberties, the freedom of others? Granted, the exercise of those liberties might often conflict with our own, and with those of other people. Balances would need to be struck, but perhaps, I think, we might strike them more easily if our starting point was respect for others’ liberties than if we began with the intent of protecting – let alone asserting – our own.
Take the liberty-loving guy in the grocery store. If he were exercising responsibility toward others, would he have behaved as he did? It’s hard for me to think so.
Similarly with the right to pursue happiness. Suppose you find happiness with a warm gun. I may be appalled by this, but if I’m looking at you through the prism of responsibility, I’m asking myself how your happiness can be maintained without damaging others. This may lead us into the same old arguments, but they’ll have a different focus – not do you or do you not have the right to own an AK73 that can fire 7000 rounds per second, but how can you be made happy without infringing on the happiness of others (e.g. by killing their kids)? This may be no more a resoluble question than that of who has rights to what kinds of weaponry, but at least our disagreements might be more civilized.
One of my non-USer Facebook correspondents noted that others – in contrast with USers – have “something called ‘for the common good.’” Of course, most USers would insist that we share this concept, but how often do we act in accordance with it? How often do we even think about it?
In summary, I’m simply wondering if there might be some advantage in thinking less about our rights, and more about our responsibilities – to ask ourselves “what are my responsibilities” whenever we’re tempted to trumpet a right. I am not saying we should be compliant sheeple, giving way to those who – I do not doubt – would be happy to exploit us to advance their narrow interests. But I wonder whether we defeat our own purpose when we take on this struggle in defense of “rights” rather than in recognition of responsibilities.
 Thank you, John Allison.