Friday, October 27, 2006

Rights, Responsibilities and Autonomy

Last month, Lord Falkoner came out fighting for the Human Rights Act, and this was sniped at, elegantly, by Tim Worstall. I won't reprise either - follow the links if you want to see what they are saying - but the conflict here is between ancient English liberties and a different, more continental and more leftist approach to rights (yes, I know the Human Rights Act was based on a British initiative after the Second World war, but the point stands; WWII was a long time ago and contemporary interpretations of human rights wouldn't have crossed even a fevered judicial mind in 1946).

There are running problems with the concept of rights and their relationship to responsibilities. How can animals have rights, ask some, when they cannot have responsibilities? Yet almost everybody would feel it would be wrong to gratuitously torture an animal. Why, if they don't have rights?

Well, they don't, and nor do we. The concept of rights is convenient to a certain type of absolutist mind. It is one of the mechanisms whereby opinions are presented in the guise of natural laws by people who are strangers to uncertainty, questioning, skepticism, honest enquiry and doubt.

If you want to know the intrinsic qualities of an object, chemical, phenomenon, you isolate then examine it. So let's isolate a human being - strand them alone on a desert island. What rights do they have? What responsibilities do they have? None, and none. But they do have to take the immediate consequences of their actions, or of their inaction. They can say whatever they like, do whatever they like, but if they don't build a shelter they'll get wet when it rains and if they don't hunt, or gather, they'll go hungry. That is our intrinsic state, as individuals.

But we don't live alone on desert islands. We are still autonomous, because that's our intrinsic quality. Living in a social group means we have responsibilities, and we all acknowledge this freely. The problem is, we don't agree what those responsibilities are.

This is the proper terrain for debate: what are our responsibilities? Suddenly, everything becomes clearer. Whether or not animals have rights is neither here nor there. It's a non-question. Instead we have to talk about what responsibilities we have to them - acknowledging that they are also autonomous creatures. We are, relatively, very powerful. Do we accept that this brings with it responsibilities? If so, what are they?

I don't want to walk past starving people on the street, and I'm willing to pay tax to provide a safety net. But how much tax and what sort of safety net? The "rights" of the people in question disappear and suddenly the onus is on me. What should I be doing?

Nobody could present themself at a port and claim asylum based on their rights. Instead, I have to face the question of what I'm prepared to do - what I think it is right to do - not just for migrants but for every citizen of a despotic country.

The issue of free speech becomes very simple. We are autonomous. Plainly, what we say will annoy and offend others. The onus is on them to be tolerant. And the onus is on us - on me - to be tolerant of expressions that annoy or offend me.

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