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Rights and Responsibilities (a Legislative Issue)


Our constitutions and laws spell out our rights and responsibilities as citizens of our country, state, county and city or town. As citizens of a democracy, it is up to us, through our legislators, to decide what things are legally acceptable and unacceptable, and what things we are legally obligated to do. We consider the acceptable things to be our legal rights. The obligations are the things that we have a legal responsibility to do to protect our rights. It is left up to everyone to make up their own mind about everything else that we have not decided is legally unacceptable.

Many of us believe that some things are inalienable rights that should not be taken away from us. These include things such as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Theoretically, of course, we could try to do anything that we wanted to do, which also means that others could try to stop us. With enough power, any person or group could take anything away from us. However, civilized society works better and is stronger when certain things are considered rights and protected by the force of law. For instance, if our government did not provide us with any protection and allowed others to take our life at any time, it could lead to a kill or be killed mentality that would soon destroy our civilization.

Rights and responsibilities must go hand in hand. In its simplest form, if we want our rights to be protected, then we must take on the responsibility to protect the rights of others. When too many of us shirk our responsibilities, our rights are not protected and cease to exist in any meaningful way. Therefore, ensuring that we meet our responsibilities is just as important to the health of our civilized society as protecting our rights. For instance, our government would not have enough money to pay for the things we needed to protect our rights if we did not meet our responsibility to pay our fair share of our taxes.

Meeting Responsibilities

Our rights only have any real value to us when we and our governments do a good job of protecting them and enforcing our responsibilities. Although every right comes with some responsibility, we all must decide how we must meet that responsibility. For instance, our right to freedom comes with a responsibility to protect that freedom, but there are many ways in which we could go about protecting it. Let’s talk about two extreme examples of how we could meet this responsibility.

One possible way to protect our freedom would be to leave it completely up to some professionals to take care of everything. In this case, our only responsibility would be to pay for their salaries, training and equipment. We would have no responsibility to help or to cooperate in any way with the protection of anyone’s freedom. This means that our military and police forces would need to be large and strong enough to take care of everything. They would need the personnel and equipment to patrol and to monitor all our borders, streets and activities. Of course, this also means giving up some freedom and privacy, since the only way for these forces to know about any threat is to monitor everything that is going on everywhere.

Another possible way to protect our freedom would be for each one of us to take on the responsibility personally. We would each be responsible for getting all the necessary training and equipment. We would need to watch out for ourselves, our neighbors and everyone else wherever we go. In addition, we would need to spend our fair share of time patrolling our borders and streets. Whenever someone was in danger, we would have the responsibility to come to their aid with as many others as were needed to help.

These extreme cases have different advantages and disadvantages. If we turn over all our protection to professions, we can completely focus on living our own lives, but we are giving up all our power to a police state. If we take on our own protection, we can be in charge, but we must remain completely vigilant and ready to come to anyone’s aid and be willing to live with the ensuing anarchy. In both cases, we are giving up our privacy either to the professions we pay to watch out for us or to everyone who is watching out for us, themselves and everyone else.

What we need is a balance between these two extremes that gives us more of the good features and less of the bad features of each. In the United States, we do have something that falls between these extremes, but we may not have the best balance.


Our goal must be to grant ourselves an appropriate set of rights and to balance them with the appropriate responsibilities. We want to give ourselves sufficient rights so that we have the freedom to try to live our lives as we want, but we also want to prevent us from causing any needless harm to other individuals, other living things or our environment. At the same time, we do not want to overburden ourselves with too many responsibilities, but we also cannot let others have a free ride, since that would harm us by forcing us to take on even more responsibilities.

What happens when we do not give ourselves enough rights? Some of us may grumble a bit but get by as best we can. Others of us may decide that change is needed and start or join a revolt. In either case, these we are forced to live our lives contrary to what we want and cannot live up to our full potential. Of course, having rights does not mean we have to use them, but having them gives us the freedom to live fuller lives within the constraints of our corresponding responsibilities.

Finding the right balance of rights and responsibilities can be complicated and I doubt that it has ever been done perfectly. Every possible right would need to be looked at carefully to see what harm it might cause to others and what responsibilities need to go with that right to prevent harming others. Of course, each of us may have different ideas about what we would consider to be rights and what would constitute undue harm. This means that our laws would need to be flexible enough to handle our differences of opinion.

The first thing to consider is that just because someone thinks that it should not be right for someone to do something does not necessarily mean that it should not be a right. When we do some given thing and the only harm done by us, other than to ourselves, is to make others upset that we are doing it, then we are not doing any real harm to others. In fact, it is the individuals who are upset that are responsible for causing themselves harm, which is in no way the fault of those of us who do the given thing.

We also want to consider that just because our doing some given thing might cause harm does not necessarily mean that it could not be done without causing harm. It is all a matter of putting the proper constraints on how we do the given thing. This all falls into the area of responsibility. If we are given the right to do something, then we must understand that we must do it in a responsible way.

Although I will talk more about religion in upcoming sections, there is at least one important point that needs to be made here. We should not be forced to live our lives according to a given religious doctrine, especially if we do not practice that religion. We are free to choose our own religious beliefs and live our lives accordingly, but within the constraints of our laws.

Therefore, no right or responsibility should be given or taken away by the government based on any religious doctrines. Of course, we should be given the freedom to forgo certain rights or to take on additional responsibilities to honor our religious or ethical beliefs, but not be allowed to take more rights or to forgo our responsibilities.

Shirking Responsibilities

What should happen when we shirk our responsibilities? Since each of our rights comes with a set of responsibilities, we could think of the responsibilities as the price we pay to earn our rights. Therefore, the simple answer could be that we would lose a right when we did not meet our responsibilities for it. For instance, if someone did not meet their responsibility to operate a motor vehicle in a safe manner, then we would take away their license, which would take away their right to drive.

Of course, many of our rights are too important simply to take them away from someone. For instance, if someone made it a habit of yelling “Fire” in a crowded theater or spreading false and malicious information about someone, this person would not be responsibly using their right to free speech. Even in these cases, it would seem wrong to take away someone’s right to free speech. Therefore, some things need alternative punishments that can be used to convince those individuals to honor their responsibilities.


Let’s look at an example that will help illustrate the balancing of our rights and responsibilities. We will use the issue of premarital sex. Some individuals believe that it is wrong for someone to have sex outside of marriage. Some religions also teach that it is wrong. On the other hand, there are many individuals who believe that it is acceptable. Remember, no matter how upset anyone may get over other individuals doing something, it should not be enough to prevent those individuals from having the right to do it. Therefore, we need to look at what real harm could come from it.

To simplify this example, let’s assume that all the individuals involved are consenting adults who are not in some other committed relationship. Given these conditions, there are only three major areas of harm that could result from premarital sex. There exists the possibility of spreading disease, causing a pregnancy, or becoming heartbroken. In each case, there are reasonable precautions that can be taken by each person involved to reduce the chances of the other person being harmed.

Therefore, there does not appear to be any reason that premarital sex should not be a right. However, this also means that the individuals who exercise their legal right to do it must be legally bound by certain corresponding responsibilities.

For instance, participants should have the responsibility to inform partners of any disease that they might catch, to take appropriate steps to prevent an unwanted pregnancy and to be clear on the nature of the relationship. In addition, those involved must take appropriate responsibility for the consequences of any unplanned pregnancy. The law should spell out the default responsibilities of those involved, but this does not mean that they couldn’t agree on their own alternate responsibilities.

When individuals do not meet their responsibilities for premarital sex, there needs to be some appropriate punishment. Unfortunately, proving that they have not lived up to their responsibilities can be tough, since it often ends up being one person’s word versus another.

One exception is pregnancy, since DNA testing can now determine paternity. When it can be proved, the main punishment might be financial, where the offending party would pay the victim some appropriate compensation. Another exception is for individuals who will not stop infecting others with a disease such as HIV. In this case, the only recourse may be imprisonment or maybe a permanent tattoo that can warn others of their disease.

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Last Updated:
Sunday, December 24, 2023
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