What Are Human Rights? (39): Human Rights and Human Duties

For some people, there’s too much talk about human rights. They see human rights as a symptom of a typically modern type of moral decay, of a culture of self-importance and egoism, and of an exaggerated sense of entitlement. We want more and more of society and the state, and at the same time we are less willing to contribute. Instead of rights talk, they say, we should promote a sense of duty. Instead of rights declarations and rights in constitutions and treaties, we should have lists of duties and responsibilities, and have the state enforce those duties rather than rights.

You often hear this duty talk when the topic is crime (defendants have “too many rights”) or anti-social behavior (whatever that means), but it seems to be focused mainly on economic human rights. Rather than a right to unemployment benefits people have a duty to work and to support themselves. Rather than a right to very expensive healthcare for everyone, people have a duty to live a healthy life. And so on.

My point here is not to deny the importance of the duties mentioned above, or of a lot of other duties. And neither do I want to claim that human rights talk can’t be frivolous. I merely want to mention a couple of risks that come with duty talk. First of all, there’s the danger of rights becoming dependent on duties. If duties are given too much importance, people will be tempted to claim that your rights can only come after you have proven to be a responsible person. That would be wrong. Rights are unconditional. People have rights, end of story. They don’t have rights because they are responsible citizens respecting their social duties. Even irresponsible citizens, and even criminals have rights.

In addition, duty talk is somewhat superfluous. Duties are inherent in rights. Someone’s rights are everyone else’s duties. (It’s wrong to view respect for rights as the duty of the state only). I don’t have a right to violate your right; I have a duty to respect it. Rights would be meaningless words without such duties. So what’s the added value of emphasizing duties?

More posts in this series are here.

4 thoughts on “What Are Human Rights? (39): Human Rights and Human Duties”

  1. The added value of emphasizing duties is to bring home to people the need for self-control. Certainly the rights granted by the 1948 declaration are unconditional (even if some of them are quite irrealistic), and granted because a human being is endowed with reason and a conscience. It is no more than simple logic that because of those qualities also certain duties can be required of that same human being. The well-understood metaphor of the two sides of a coin is an apt illustration for this ancient piece of wisdom. Sadly, the 1948 declaration stopped short of tackling the duties side of the coin (cf.John H. Knox, Opinio Juris, November 6, 2007), and now, sixty-odd years on, duties are increasingly felt to be missing in the guidelines for a human’s behaviour. Unfortunately, the question to whom these duties are owed invariably leads to discussions that result in a tangle whenever the state is brought to bear. The state is the party that is supposed to recognize and defend human rights, and therefore cannot be entrusted with enforcing duties. Human duties are owed to a person’s own conscience, and constitute the criteria that he or she applies when making a moral decision (right or wrong). The time has come for drawing up a short list of duties to complement the list of rights.The administration of those duties should be entrusted to a novel type of organization, a global network of wise men and women. The internet is, of course, the ideal vehicle for such a creation. See http://www.humanduties.com.


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