The Indian civil rights leader Mahatma Gandhi famously said “Rights spring only from duties well done.” Even as he led the struggle for Indian independence and equality for untouchables, Gandhi was careful to speak of rights in the context of their corresponding responsibilities. In the United States we may all have the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as promised in the Declaration of Independence; but this pursuit must not unduly hinder our neighbor’s same right or the concept becomes meaningless. In a crowded and complex world, individuals and societies can only flourish when we fairly balance both rights and responsibilities. Focusing exclusively on one or the other invariably leads to unfairness, injustice or extremism.
As Teddy Roosevelt said, “Much has been given to us and much will rightly be expected of us.” A person or a group who refuse to fulfil their responsibilities, while simultaneously demanding their full “rights” almost always results in an injustice to someone else. Conversely, an obsessive focus only on the responsibilities of others can lead to a lack of compassion. In both cases it is important to be guided by Confucius’ wise observation that “Superior people make demands on themselves, while small people make demands on others.” Unfortunately this nuance seems lost in much public discourse today.
Try a simple thought experiment on almost any issue and the relationship between rights and responsibilities comes quickly into focus:
- We may have a right to basic medical care; but we have a responsibility to look after our health and avoid damaging behaviors so that we do not overburden the health care system for everyone else.
- We may have a right to acquire wealth through our hard work, skills and bright ideas; but we have a responsibility to pay our fair share back to the society that has allowed us to prosper.
- We may have a right to a basic education; but we have a responsibility to attend school seriously and respectfully so that we do not cheat ourselves and others in our classroom of a good learning experience.
- We may have a right to welfare and a social safety net; but we have a responsibility to only accept it as a last resort before we use taxes collected from the work of others to support ourselves.
- We may have a right to have children; but once chosen we have a responsibility to make every sacrifice to raise them ourselves in a stable, healthy and loving environment.
- We may have a right to amass possessions; but we have a responsibility to do so in a manner that does not rob the same opportunity from others and from future generations.
- We may have a right to safe and respectful treatment by the police; but we have a responsibility to obey the law, and to be calm, polite and compliant ourselves during any encounter.
- We may have a right to eat as we please; but we have a responsibility to avoid foods produced by extreme cruelty to animals or excessive harm to the environment.
- We may have a right to vote; but we have a responsibility to be well-informed of the candidates, issues and choices.
- We may have a right to equality of opportunity; but we have a responsibility to work hard, make good life choices and to accept unequal outcomes if we do not act wisely.
- We may have a right to bear arms; but we have a responsibility to manage weapons carefully and to keep them out of the hands of those who may harm themselves or unjustly harm others.
- We may have a right to free speech; but we have a responsibility to speak the truth to the best of our knowledge.
- We may have a right to be addressed politely; but we have a responsibility to avoid offence at trifles and to allow the airing of honest disagreement.
- We may have a right to pursue pleasure; but we have a responsibility to do so in moderation, so as not to harm ourselves or others.
In short, stand up for your rights and demand equal justice from others; but also treat others justly according to their deeds and character. Always remember as the Roman philosopher and statesman Seneca wrote 2000 year ago: “You ask what is your greatest fault? Your accounting is wrong; you rate too high the value of what you have given and too low what you have received.” Next time you grow angry about someone infringing on your “rights”, stop for a moment, and before acting, look within and ask “have I fulfilled my responsibilities?”