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Rights and Responsibilities (a Legislative Issue)


Introduction

Our constitutions and laws spell out our rights and responsibilities as citizen 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. The acceptable things are considered to be our legal rights. The obligations are the things that we have a legal responsibility to do in order to protect our rights. It is left up to each individual to make up his or her own mind about everything else that we have not decided is legally unacceptable.

Many people believe that some things are unalienable rights that should not be taken away from us. These include things such as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Theoretically, of course, everyone is actually free to try to do anything that they want to do, which also means that anyone is free to try to stop them. With enough power, any person or group can take anything away from us, but civilized society works better and is stronger when certain things are considered rights and protected by the force of law. For instance, if the government allowed people to take anyone’s life at any time without providing its citizens with any protection, it could lead to a kill or be kill 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 people shirk their responsibilities, our rights are not protected and cease to exist in any meaningful way. Therefore, ensuring that people meet their responsibilities is just as important to the health of a civilized society as protecting people’s rights. For instance, our government would not have enough money to pay for the things needed to protect our rights if people did not meet their responsibility to pay their 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 as a society must decide how we will need to meet that responsibility. For instance, our right to freedom comes with the 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 out 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 treat 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.

Both of 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.

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 people sufficient rights so that they have the freedom to try to live their lives as they want, but we also want to prevent them from causing any needless harm to other people, other living things or the environment. At the same time, we do not want to overburden people with too many responsibilities, but we also cannot let people have a free ride, since that would actually harm others by forcing them to take on even more responsibilities.

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

Finding the right balance of rights and responsibilities can be complicated and I doubt that it has ever been done completely. 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 in order to prevent harming others. Of course, different people may have different ideas about what they would consider to be rights and what constitutes harm. This means that our laws would need to be flexible enough to handle these differences of opinion.

The first thing to take into account 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 individuals do some given thing and the only harm done by them, other than to themselves, is to make others upset that they are doing it, then they are not doing any real harm to others. In fact, it is the people who are upset that are responsible for causing themselves harm, which is in no way the fault of the individuals who do the given thing.

We also want to take into account that just because 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 people do the given thing. This all falls into the area of responsibility. If people are given the right to do something, they must be understood that they must do it in a responsible manner.

Although I will talk more about religion in upcoming subsections, there is at least one important point that needs to be made here. People should not be forced to live their lives according to a given religious doctrine, especially if they do not practice that religion. People are free to choose their own religious beliefs and live their 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, individuals should be given the freedom to forgo certain rights or to take on additional responsibilities in order to honor their religious or ethical beliefs, but not be allowed to take more rights or to forgo their 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 people, they 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 people to meet their responsibilities.

Example

Let’s take a look at an example that will help illustrate the balancing of our rights and responsibilities. We will use the issue of premarital sex. Some people believe that it is wrong for people to have sex outside of marriage. Some religions also teach that it is wrong. On the other hand, there are many people who believe that it is quite acceptable. Remember, no matter how upset anyone may get over other people doing something, it should not be enough to prevent people from having the right to do it. Therefore, we need to look at what real harm can 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 can 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. This means that the people who exercise their legal right to do it must be legally bound by certain corresponding responsibilities. For instance, informing partners of any disease that they might catch, taking appropriate steps to prevent an unwanted pregnancy and being 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 make their own arrangements.

When someone does not meet their responsibilities for premarital sex, there needs to be some appropriate punishment. Unfortunately, proving that someone has not lived up to their responsibilities can be tough, since it often ends up being one person’s word verses another. The 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. On the other hand, for people who will not stop infecting other people with a disease such as HIV, the only recourse may be imprisonment or maybe permanent tattoos that can warn others of their disease.

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Last Updated:
Sunday, November 26, 2017
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