Frequently when my six year old son tries to take something from his siblings, something that belongs to them and he has not asked for, he attempts to justify his actions with the phrase “but I want it” said in an annoying whiny, loud, self-pitying tone.
An important part of moral education is to teach people they can’t just take whatever they want. One’s conduct needs to be guided by principles that often restrict one from doing certain actions one might want to do. The phenomena of temptation involves cases where what one wants and what is right are at variance. In such cases a person of integrity should resist doing what she wants rather she should do what is right.
These points are obvious or at least one would have thought they were.
Today while driving I heard people ringing talk back radio complaining about the fact that New Zealand does not have as much sport on free to air TV as Australia does. One caller in particular stated emphatically that there was something unfair about this; without free to air TV those who enjoyed rugby would have to pay money to watch it and not everyone can afford this.
I find this reaction, well, odd.
I have had a similar reaction to arguments that were proposed by fellow students when I was studying at Uni. The argument was made that student loans or course fees were unfair. Why? Well, because it meant those who want an education have to pay for it. The price means those who cannot afford this can’t get it or at least have to borrow money to do so and if they borrow money they have to pay this back. Notice the premise in both arguments; if I am unable to afford something that I want to have then that is unfair.
Surely a moments reflection shows this premise to be false? Surely this is obviously so? I for example want to visit Greece, Italy, Isreal and Eygpt as having spent a good part of my life studying the history of these places I want to go there. I really would love to visit friends of mine in Colorado. I would love to live in a bigger house. Does it follow that it is unfair that this is not given to me ‘free’? Is the fact that if I gained these things I would have to pay for them unjust? Is the fact that I cannot currently afford everything I want really an issue of justice? Surely not!
Some would say that I am belabouring a straw man here, particularly with the tertiary education issue. The issue is not that it is unfair merely because I want to study at Uni as going to Uni is not a luxury item like a trip to Rome. It is unfair because I have a right to a university education. (So the argument goes.)
Now I think this is one of those areas where appeals to “rights” is misleading. Rights and duties are correlated. If I have a right to Q from P, then P has a duty to provide me with Q. Moreover, in a political context, these duties are enforceable. Not only does P have a duty to provide me with Q but the state should punish P if P fails to discharge this duty.
Once this point is realised, appeals to rights can be seen for what they are. They are attempts to impose by force a duty upon other people. Liberal lefties love to talk about defending human rights and opposing evil religious conservatives who “impose their values on others” but their language hides the real moral situation. What in fact they want is to reject the imposition of some duties on others while supporting the imposition of others. This is one of the reasons why I incline to the view that rights talk is redundant and should be dropped and replaced with the older moral discourse which merely emphasised duties. It enables situations to be viewed with a clarity that is otherwise hidden.
The phrase I have “a right to Q” is ambigious and couching the issue in terms of duties clarifies the issues. When someone claims they have “a right” they could mean a negative right or a positive right, a negative right to rugby watching or tertiary education means that the person whom the right is against has a duty to not prevent you (via coercion or intimidation) from accessing those things. A positive right means that the person has a duty not to prevent you from accessing those things but to actually give them to you. In addition, saying I have a right to X does not tell us who this right is held against couching the issue in terms of duties does.
Returning to our example, what these people appear to be saying is that the government has a duty to provide people with free rugby games and a tertiary education if they want these things. Everyone else in society has a duty to contribute their money towards their TV watching or their tertiary education and breaching this duty is so serious that justice requires that those who do not do this be arrested and incarcerated. Is this a plausible claim?
I think it is not. I agree that parents have a duty to provide their children with a basic education and I agree that parents who do not do this are guilty of neglect and should be prosecuted for doing so. But the suggestion that the state has a duty to educate adults up to masters and PhD level and that a citizens failure to provide other adults with the funds to do this is a serious breach of their duties warranting prosecution seems far fetched. It is not as though failure to watch the All Blacks thrash Italy or to gain a PhD in physics means one is condemned to a dehumanising degrading existence.
It is hard to resist the conclusion that people who make these claims are presenting sophisticated versions of my six year old son “I want that so I am going to take it. You give it to me or else.” They are essentially calling on a powerful strong person (the state) to intimidate other people to give them what they want. Maybe I am missing something, but I do not understand how intelligent adults can believe that this constitutes serious moral or ethical discourse in our society. Or how words like “rights” can cause people to systematically deceive themselves as to the nature of what they are doing.
This view of “rights” and public discourse essentially turns democracy into an egocentric mob where one segment plunders another for their own personal gain and political parties compete for votes by promising their faction the better spoil. To pass it of as progressive caring policy is nonsense.