7.1.5 How the language works

Back to 7.1.4

Unit 7 Contents


We’ve already noted (on 7.1.2 and 7.1.3) some of the points of definition that we need to grasp in order to use the language of duties and rights well, namely:

  • what ‘human rights’ are
  • the difference between moral rights and legal rights – and we can note now that there is an exactly parallel distinction between moral and legal duties
  • the two categories of ‘freedom rights’ and ‘benefit rights’.

As I said (7.1.2), this language is often misused, which is why we are paying close attention to it.  If we are going to be able to understand and use it well, one more main clarification really is necessary.

This is that there are two different ways in which duties and rights are related to one another.  I’ll refer to these as (a) and (b).

(a)  The first way in which duties and rights are related always involves two parties – two people or groups of people.

For every right that one person (or group) has, someone else (or a group) must have the corresponding duty to ensure the right is upheld.

For example, if I have a right to freedom of speech, you have the duty not to stop me speaking.

If you have a right to a just wage and I’m employing you, I have a duty to ensure you are paid that.

In this way, talk of rights and duties is inherently relational – it always involves a relationship between one party who has a right and another who has the duty to uphold it.

Note a very important implication of this.  If someone claims to have a right to something (let’s say to cosmetic dental treatment, or to curry every Friday night), but there is no other person or group who really has a duty to make sure that purported right is upheld, that person’s claim to have that right must be false.  They may strongly want whitened teeth, but this doesn’t mean they have a right to the treatment.

(b)  The second way in which the language of rights and duties/responsibilities works does not necessarily involve two agents.  Rather, it focuses on the person with rights and says that the same person also has responsibilities.

For example, if I have a right to enough income to live, then I have a responsibility to work to earn it (if I can), rather than simply expecting someone else to hand it me.

Or, if you have a right to freedom of religion, then you also have a duty to seek the truth about religious questions.

The point here is that, granted that you and I have a right to x, y or z, we also have a responsibility to live up to what that right secures for us.  The quotation at the very start of this unit put this point strongly: as people of dignity and therefore with rights, we also have a “lofty vocation” to act in ways consistent with that dignity and those rights.

To summarize the above, in (a), talk of rights and duties is always about two parties, whereas in (b), the rights and responsibilities are those of one party.

A few more remarks about both (a) and (b) will be helpful.

*     ‘Responsibilities as well as rights’

In Britain, the former Prime-Minister Tony Blair was very well known for emphasizing ‘responsibilities as well as rights’.  For some years, this was a main theme in his speeches.  In a statement after there were riots in some English cities in August 2011, Prime-Minister David Cameron, spoke in exactly the same way.

What Blair and Cameron were emphasizing was point (b).  They were saying this: people’s rights have been over-emphasized, and while they indeed have rights, those same people also have responsibilities which they had better make sure they act on.  Indeed, in some cases – such as rights to unemployment benefits – if they don’t fulfil their responsibilities to accept work and live within the law, they might have to forfeit their right to state benefits.

This way of connecting right and responsibilities is perfectly proper and coherent.  I have already quoted Pope John XXIII connecting them in exactly this way (7.1.2).  What can be very controversial, of course, are particular such claims – for example, that if someone doesn’t take work they should have all social security stopped and be left destitute.  In strict logic, this does not follow.  There is an inherent connection between each person’s responsibilities and rights, but often it is very difficult to specify exactly what it entails in practice.

*     A distinction between ‘responsibilities’ and ‘duties’

Also on (b), when connecting the rights and responsibilities of a person in this way, it is (I suggest) more natural to use the term ‘responsibilities’ than ‘duties’ – as I’ve just been doing, and as Blair generally did.

In contrast, when we’re speaking about (a), one person’s right that someone else must uphold, it is natural to speak of ‘duties’.

So we can see here a contrast between the ways in which the words ‘responsibilities’ and ‘duties’ are typically used.  However this is certainly not a hard and fast difference (and there would be no point in trying to insist on it).

*     Shared duties to uphold rights

Finally, also to do with (a), we need to recognize a really significant upshot of saying that, for any right that you or I have, it might be a group of people who together are responsible for upholding it.  This is often true and it is really important to recognize what it means.

Its significance for ‘freedom rights’ is obvious: if I have a right to freedom of association, then it is everybody else’s duty not to interfere with whom I associate with.  Its significance for benefit rights is perhaps less obvious and is much more challenging.  If I have a right to enough income to live, but cannot work to earn it, then it is everybody else’s duty to make sure there is some suitable provision in place so that I don’t starve.  In both cases, this is what it means to say that I have that human right.  Certainly, this is how CST sees it. Pacem in Terris says:

[I]n human society, to one man’s right there corresponds a duty in all other persons: the duty, namely, of acknowledging and respecting the right in question…  Those, therefore, who claim their own rights, yet altogether forget or neglect to carry out their respective duties, are people who build with one hand and destroy with the other.  (#30, emphasis added)

Of course it is a great challenge to work out in practice how, through the ordinary institutions of social life, we can fulfil the shared duties we have to make sure others’ rights are upheld.

The main point on this screen has been to contrast the two ways in which rights and duties/responsibilities are related to one another.  In summary:

(a)  For each right that any person really has, another person or group has the duty to ensure it is upheld.  In this way, rights and duties are inherently relational.

(b)  Granted that we each have rights, we also each have responsibilities to live up to what our rights secure for us.

I hope that the several points I have made about the language of rights and duties show how this makes sense and can be used clearly.

I said earlier that in this unit we would be following the pastoral spiral, although less closely than in earlier units.  The last screen prompted recollection of your own experience.  We shall shortly give attention to the next stage in the cycle, by looking at the historical context in which talk of human rights emerged.  But we shall see first what CST has to say about human dignity.


End of 7.1.5


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