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Human Rights and a Code of Responsibility

Posted: Fri, August 29, 2014 | By: Humanism

by Alex McGilvery

We have become so dependent on the concept of ‘human rights’ that we have become morally lazy. I propose that we need to start thinking more in terms of ‘human responsibility’.

A man and a woman have an argument.

“I have a right to come home to some peace and quiet,” he says.

“I have a right to tell you how I feel,” she replies.

The conversation quickly deteriorates as each lists what they have a right to: to be heard, to have feelings, to be happy, to have a nice house, to be taken care of. The list is endless. The problem is that the man’s rights and the woman’s rights conflict and entangle. They both feel that they are being mistreated and the other should be able to see that truth.

The idea that individuals have basic rights that exist simply because one is a member of the human species is relatively new. We are so used to thinking in terms of global human rights that we have a difficult time imagining a time when they did not exist in the codified form that we have now in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet this Declaration was only ratified by the United Nations in 1949 and there are countries that have yet to agree to follow the rights laid out in the Declaration even in principle. Sadly it is also true that we have become so dependent on Human Rights and the concept of rights in general that we have become morally lazy. We unconsciously divide rights into two categories; ours and theirs. We will fight to the death for our rights. Our right to free speech, to own property, to own a gun. When it comes to the rights of others we are content to sign a petition or send a few bucks. If it doesn’t effect us directly it isn’t important. What I propose is that we need to start thinking in terms of responsibility. Human Responsibility. I don’t think that our ethical development will move forward without a strong sense of responsibility for ourselves and our world.

The idea that we are responsible is set out explicitly in the Declaration: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. (Article 1) If we just lived out this one concept then everything else would follow. We don’t. We don’t because the economy that surrounds us is predicated on some people being worth more than others. We don’t because we see the world through our assumptions and beliefs about the world, not through rational and critical thinking. Finally, we don’t because it is easier not to, at least in the short run. Thus we need some further impetus to move us to take up our responsibilities as members of the human race.

I am suggesting the following as a beginning to the discussion on the nature of Human Responsibilities. I might have missed something, you may not agree with them. Let’s talk about it. With your help we can make them clearer and more effective.

1. All human beings should live free with dignity and full recognition of their rights and responsibilities. They should use the reason and conscience with which they are endowed to act with humanity toward human, animal and planet.

2. All humans are responsible for their own decisions and the consequences of those decisions as much as they have the capacity to be.

3. All humans are responsible for learning throughout their lives. Parents are responsible for encouraging and empowering the education of their children. Communities are responsible for creating a safe environment in which learning may take place.

4. All humans have the responsibility to develop healthy relationships appropriate for their age. Parents and the community have the responsibility of protecting children from inappropriate and damaging relationships.

5. All humans have the responsibility to be honest with themselves and with others.

6. All humans have the responsibility to respect themselves and the people around them.

7. All humans have the responsibility for caring for the world in which they live.

8. All humans are responsible for putting the good of the community and the world about the desire for profit.

9. It is the responsibility of every person to contribute to society. It is the responsibility of each person to seek out meaning and purpose.

10. It is everybody’s responsibility to know their rights before the law and avail themselves of those rights.

11. All humans have the responsibility to maintain their relationship with their government and to hold their government accountable for its actions.

12. All humans have the responsibility for the elimination of poverty. Each individual is responsible for ensuring that the people of the world have the necessities of life: food, clean water, shelter and education.

13. All humans are responsible for thinking critically about their assumptions of the world and their place in it.

14. All humans have the responsibility to speak, or otherwise express themselves, thoughtfully, truthfully and in a manner that builds up the community.

15. These responsibilities, like the rights that they balance, are indivisible. To choose to live one responsibility is to choose to attempt them all. To refuse one is to refuse all.

16. The refusal of one person, group or nation to take one their responsibilities does not diminish the responsibility held by the rest of the world.

17. Responsibilities belong to the individual, group, or nation and can’t be transferred or imposed from outside.

Once again, if we just live out the first principle, then everything else will follow. The reality is that we won’t. As a species we are more interested in finding exceptions and excuses than in just following the simple standards that would see us evolve as ethical beings. Even as we discuss the potential for moral enhancement through drugs that would possibly increase our empathy, we are abdicating responsibility for our own choices. If we are going to enhance our morality, then we will need to do it the hard way — by thinking through our decisions and taking responsibility for both decision and consequence.

Some of the Code is just a corollary of the Declaration. If we have the right to marry and form relationships, we have the responsibility to take those relationships seriously and to aid our children to form good relationships. If we have the right to education, we have the responsibility to learn in whatever manner suits us best. If all people have the right to the essentials of life, then all people have the responsibility to ensure that the essentials of life are available to everybody.

One corollary is especially important; that is the responsibility to speak thoughtfully, truthfully and in a manner to build up the community. Free speech is probably the most abused right. We lambast each other and claim the right to say what we think. The problem is that much of what we think isn’t worth saying. It might be unsupported opinion, it might be completely wrong, it might be outright lies. That is why I like the idea of responsible speech. We are then trying to think before we talk, to speak only what we know is true and to speak in a way that makes the world a better place.

The other side to responsible speech is the responsibility to think critically about our assumptions. This responsibility may in fact be the most difficult of all of them because it demands that we step outside of ourselves and our comfort zone to check whether we are being reasonable or not. Whenever we have to fall back on ‘common sense’ or ‘everybody knows’ or similar generalized statements we should have an alarm going off in our head warning us that we have stopped thinking critically.

What accepting these, or a similar set, of responsibilities will do is prevent the ‘my rights’ versus ‘your rights’ problem that ethics faces now. These are all our responsibility. We either live them or we don’t. We can’t force them on others; we can only choose to live them out ourselves. Yet if we do take living out our responsibilities seriously it will also challenge others to follow suit. We live in a system and any change in one part of the system will result in changes in all parts.

This article is a synopsis of a book on the Code of Responsibility. Your input whether for or against will become part of that book and help spread the idea. The more we talk about it, here, on Facebook, at the coffee shop or bar, the further the idea will spread. As we at the grassroots level balance our rights with our responsibilities we will be ready to move forward in our evolution as Homo sapiens.

Alex McGilvery is currently living in Flin Flon, Manitoba, Canada. He is an author and serves as the minister of a thriving United Church congregation.


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