Manual War and Morality: Citizens’ Rights and Duties

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Could the root cause of our discontents be lack of inner resources, rather than higher expectations of life? Other voices have also lamented the corrosive effect of this blinkered focus on rights and self-fulfillment. Borst, author of Liberalism: Fatal Consequences , wrote of the United States: Lawyers have hamstrung society with nit-picking minutiae.

Consider, by way of illustrating the point, that hate-object of political correctness, the beleaguered conventional two-parent family. The present British government and its politicized civil service, particularly the welfare system, often refuse even to discuss publicly the traditional two-parent family.

So where is the place for teaching and upholding the spiritual, moral and social responsibilities of fatherhood? Many American and British moral, legal and constitutional concepts are still based, however loosely, on biblical heritage. Before we allow what remains of that heritage to be swept away for good, it is worth reflecting on the effects of digging up the historic roots of moral and cultural values that once went unquestioned. There is a ducking of issues, particularly by certain politicians, clerics and others, when it comes to exercising responsibility at the most personal levels.

To demonstrate, try this comparison. First, consider the ever-widening ban on smoking in public places. Why is it banned? Because undeniable statistics show that it is harmful to innocent parties nonsmokers , not to mention to smokers themselves. Now take the same logic and apply it to sex.

Why should society be expected to pick up the tab for casual sex any more than it should pick up the tab for smoking? A compassionate society rightly continues to provide treatment for smoking-induced illnesses, but increasingly the responsibility is being placed back on smokers, who pay the social price of bans in public places and the financial price of increased insurance premiums. Our narrow and selfish preoccupation with rights is a moral, spiritual health warning that all is not well with our society.

In earlier ages, people focused on their moral and social responsibilities rather than complaining about their lack of rights. They also expected others to behave in the best interests of society. How about responsibilities and rights? Yet he captured some commitments that other liberals shared. After its early naturalistic phase, liberalism shared with socialism a commitment to the collective foundations of the good life, in which individual liberty fit alongside universal emancipation and a range of other goods.

Perhaps most important, liberals evoked the complex interdependence of human beings in a way that rights talk risks obscuring, especially given its frequent allegiance to the defense of property. Though only their powerful traditions of rights and utility are familiar today, many Anglo-American liberals agreed with their Continental European colleagues about the need to emphasize a theory and practice of duties. Surely the best example is T.

Rights vs. Responsibilities

Green, the Oxford moralist who fused Evangelical religion, liberal politics, and Hegelian metaphysics. As his biographer Melvin Richter explained, it was in some ways because Green felt he could count on secure English and Western European traditions of liberty that he could take the chance to justify a more interventionist state. Accordingly, Green named a major work Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation ; in it he argued that personal entitlements should receive far less rhetorical attention than state and collective ones—precisely to support policies that would augment inherited rights with needed redistribution.

This meant, above all, an insistence that duties have the same standing and importance as rights: Green, British New Liberals, and their American analogues were arguing against a libertarian presumption whereby state intrusion into the allegedly free domain of market activity was a violation of rights. These thinkers directed their fire toward the conception of rights as metaphysical entities; instead, rights were social goods whose justification ultimately lay in collective purposes.

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Later, in the twentieth century, American legal realists such as Robert Hale and Karl Llewellyn pursued a similar deconstruction of rights. Though, in theory, the anti-metaphysical critique applied equally to duties, Green, his contemporaries, and their successors did not target duties for criticism, perhaps because they wanted in the first place to make duties plausible in an age in which liberty is used to justify market hierarchy and depredation. For such figures, the argument was thus twofold.

First, if people have rights based on their innate features, they have innate duties too. Second, the collective setting of individual freedom makes the harmony of social and individual purposes a policy challenge. The presence of both purposes should not be an occasion for asserting the supremacy of individual freedom over the collective good and playing the trump card of rights to minimize the state. The need to guard against destructive ideas of duty is a poor excuse for ignoring beneficial ones.

The welfare state was popularly justified not in terms of rights—including economic rights—but individual and collective duties. It is hazy but interesting, drawing on substantial talk within the French Resistance about the need for a fresh start for the sake of solidarity. Today, however, liberal emphasis on duties is a distant memory at every scale.

Rights vs. Duties

Political theory lost track of the concept in the second half of the twentieth century. Even communitarianism, with its concern for interdependence, does not carry the mantle; duty-oriented liberals understood social interdependence as the setting for personal freedoms, not a substitute for them. And these liberal theorists sometimes demanded responsibility not in local settings alone—as communitarians do—but at a global scale.

In the public sphere, duties are similarly absent. Neither liberals in their domestic projects, nor the Universal Declaration and subsequent international movements, have successfully offered powerful public visions of social interdependence, collective agency, or planetary responsibility. Our age of rights, lacking a public language of duties, is a historical outlier. The consequences are significant. Human rights themselves wither when their advocates fail to cross the border into the language of duty; insofar as compliance with norms on paper is sought, the bearers of duties have to be identified and compelled to assume their burden.

But duties may have an even larger role to play than simply completing the circuit of rights fulfillment. Specifically, one might call for cosmopolitan responsibilities for the sake of the many to balance the transnational commercial freedoms that currently redound to the benefit of a few. Indeed, progressive international lawyers have made repeated attempts to assert not rights of individuals but duties of states—including to one another in view of their unequal wealth and power. Of course, it would be a grievous mistake to insist, as both Mazzini and Gandhi apparently did, that enjoyment of rights ought to depend on assumption of duties first.

And it is undeniable that the rhetoric of duties has often been deployed euphemistically by those whose true purpose is a return to tradition won by limiting the rights of others. In British Labour Party Prime Minister Gordon Brown began calling for a new bill of rights and duties, which has escalated into full-scale resistance to human rights under his conservative successors. But it ought to be clear that the need to guard against destructive ideas of duty is a poor excuse for ignoring beneficial liberal ones.

Indeed, rejecting duty entirely means rejecting a public vocabulary that might save a range of values from continuing neglect, whether socioeconomic equality, global justice, or environmental welfare. Further, duties could matter precisely because many of our most intractable problems are global. It is highly doubtful that human rights alone will address these public dilemmas in either theory or practice.

The Same Old Lessons

In fact, they have already failed to do so. The anxious sense that to legitimate talk of duty is to flirt with disaster—that, all things considered, it is best to stick exclusively to the vindication of hard-won rights—is understandable but indefensible. Above all, it is critical to ensure that the human rights revolution does not turn out to be a permanent fellow-traveler of a much larger libertarian revolution: Recent developments in human rights themselves suggest a parting of the ways.

It also would help dispel worries about its libertarian associations, particularly since northern activists have a continuing penchant for demoting economic and social rights and distributive justice in general in favor of classic concerns about, for example, censorship, imprisonment, and torture.


Just as important, in recent years there has been a remarkable turn in northern advocacy toward building community relationships around the world before setting multifaceted agendas, rather than parachuting in for externally formulated quick fixes. For instance, the non-governmental organization Participation and the Practice of Rights wants to teach activists to help existing grassroots forces in the global South to help themselves. Such anxieties speak to the need for duties that go beyond insurance against the worst abuses; they must serve the pursuit of economic justice, not simply help businesses to advertise their ethical propriety.

Rights vs. Duties | Boston Review

There are good reasons, then, to ask what a history of human duties would look like, so we can decide whether and how to reestablish duties now. There will always be debate both about the source and substance of such duties. But this is no more true of duties than it is of the rights framework now impressively entrenched—along with the historical work that serves to vindicate it.

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