No rights without responsibilities?

A common assertion – almost a slogan – in discussions about rights is that there should be “no rights without responsibilities”.

It has a superficial attraction as a proposition; but to those who say this I have one question:

What responsibilities must we fulfil in return for our right not to be tortured?




9 thoughts on “No rights without responsibilities?”

  1. The “one and only duty that you must fulfil in return for your right not to be tortured” is to bear eternal vigilance against those that would seek to overthrow universal human rights for all.

  2. It is indeed a good question, though I suppose it depends upon your definition of torture [in anything but a Justice Stewart sense], and the issue that, in some outlier cases a lot of people would consider some form of physical compulsion justified in getting certain information [for example we confine people who refuse to release certain information in court until they agree to release it] which one could define as a form of torture, dependent upon your standards.

    However, I think that most people who say this are actually reflecting as moral, rather than legal point, which offends their sense of ‘natural justice’, that being that the basis of most moral codes, religious and atheist alike, is that one should do unto others as one would be done by, and they find offensive the idea that we uphold the rights of people who flagrantly disregard the rights of others.

    And actually so do we, all the time. A persons right to freedom and family life is indeed [under the current system anyway] contingent on their obligations not to be a mass murderer for example.

    However there is a slightly more prosaic example [as you might expect from a non-blogger] which I think highlights the counterpoint to your question, and has the advantage of being a question we have already answered.

    If you are claiming that human rights are inalienable and independent of social responsibility;

    and if you are claiming that the right to religious freedom is a basic human right;

    then if I belong to a religion that has the sincere belief that dark skinned people carry the mark of Cain, and are therefore naturally evil, wouldn’t my inalienable right to express those views naturally override my legal responsibilities under Equality legislation not to say so?

    I have to say that, in this particular instance, it has been determined that for ‘rights’ to have any meaningful social benefit, they must be tempered by the obligation of people claiming those rights [inasmuch as they are able] to have a similar obligation to respect the rights of others.

    And personally, I wouldn’t have it any other way

  3. @Pete Grimes, rights and responsibilities are two entirely different and unrelated things. To suggest they are joined at the hip is to make a category error – like saying that apples entail oranges. What you describe as “responsibilities” or “obligations” are just examples of competing rights, as in the classic maxim: your right to swing your fist ends just where my nose begins.

    It is entirely reasonable to qualify a right where such competition exists – i.e. seek a balance between different rights-holders – but this does not create a responsibility ex nihilo. Thus you do not have a responsibility to not punch me. Rather I have a right not to be punched. It isn’t the same thing.

    For example, I have the right to sell my labour as I see fit. If I contract with an employer, he then accepts an obligation to pay me if I provide my labour as per the terms or the contract. He also has a responsibility to provide a safe working environment as per existing law. The three things here – right, obligation, responsibility – are all distinct and in no sense interdependent.

    The idea that rights routinely entail responsibilities is simply an attempt to limit the extent of those rights. When you examine the proposed responsibilities they inevitably single out groups deemed “undeserving” for moral reasons. This is the antithesis of human rights, where the only requirement is to be human.

  4. The reason why some people – especially Tories – insist that with rights come responsibilities, is simply because they are laying up or creating an excuse to deprive people of their rights later on. Dave’s post above is excellent.

  5. In return for your right not to be tortured you must not set in motion a horrendous crime that can only be prevented by your divulging critical information…

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