Rights, Entitlements, And Privileges

All rights that we possess by necessity place obligations on other people and provide us with some sort of privilege and entitlement as a result.  This is true whether we view rights in the negative sense of freedom from interference with our behavior or whether we view rights in the positive sense of obligating others to provide us with what are deemed to be the necessities of life, like food, housing, healthcare, or anything else.  Given the fact that rights are frequently demanded and that privileges are just as frequently condemned by the same people, it would appear as if there is not really a sufficient knowledge of the contradictory impulses that lead us both to demand entitlements and to resent the privileges that other people have while ignoring our own.  And while the subject is far too massive to deal with in toto, what I would like to do is at least frame the way that rights, entitlements, and privileges intersect with each other that we do not often recognize and that lie at the basis of so much of our moral blindness and hypocrisy when it comes to behaving justly towards others and receiving justice for ourselves.

It did not take very long in American history before the freedoms that were vociferously defended by the founding fathers were astutely viewed as a threat to the well-being of some of their descendants.  The statement in the Declaration of Independence that the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (a fancy term for property rights of various kinds) were inalienable rights that were granted to all humanity by our Creator God was viewed not as a self-evident truth by defenders of the antebellum South but as a self-evident lie.  These same rights are also viewed as self-evident lies by defenders of abortion, for the same reasons.  As it happens, the rights of life, liberty, and property are frequently in competition among different parties.  If slaves are considered as human beings, their right to life and liberty and property would compete against, and perhaps even trump, the rights of masters and mistresses to consider them as property.  Similarly, if unborn children are viewed as having an inalienable right to life, then they cannot be viewed as the property of their mothers in whose wombs they temporarily reside.  Similarly, the inalienable nature of the property rights of citizens would seem to threaten the claimed privilege of municipalities and other government institutions from seizing that property on any pretext for development purposes or transportation routes without adequate compensation.  Having a right to life, if one is a criminal, means obligating a restraint of taking their lives even if they may deserve it.  Having a right to shelter or healthcare obligates society as a whole to provide it, no matter the cost.

There is a fundamental asymmetry between the rights we claim for ourselves and what we are willing to grant to others.  For example, the freedom of speech that we possess obligates others to tolerate that speech, however much they may disapprove of it.  Yet while we fiercely defend our own freedom to speak the truth as we see it, we do not always appreciate the way that other people use their freedom of speech.  We seldom see ourselves as the way others see us, and see the way that what is obviously true to us comes off as hateful and intolerable to others, although we can clearly see that what others view as obvious truths are instead vile and disgusting libels and slanders.  And the same is true with every right that one could see.  We defend the absolute rights we have to various intellectual property even as we seek to minimize the protections on those same rights to others.  When we have little intellectual property we favor fair use so that we can make our own interpretations of what others have created before us, and when we have a lot of intellectual property to protect as a result of our own creations (which are usually derivative in nature), we seek to protect ourselves from having others do to us what we have done to others.  If that makes us hypocrites, we are hypocrites in this, even if such tendencies are nearly universal in nature.

Furthermore, the language that we use demonstrates where we stand in various matters.  A right is something we demand for ourselves (or for others) as a matter of justice and merit.  And obviously those who are opposed to rights that we demand must be in the wrong, and we must be in the rights (even though there is a lot of equivocation in terms of the definitions of right and rights).  An entitlement is something that we recognize as being politically popular but morally dubious.  It is something we view as illegitimate and may seek to counteract but is something whose power we nonetheless recognize.  For example, the old age benefits of Social Security and Medicare are classic ponzi schemes in terms of their economic structure, but are both immensely popular politically, and so while they are something whose immorality many will concede, they are nonetheless not something that can be easily corrected because of the vested interest that old people have in defending the massive transfers of money that come to them from working age people, even if those working age people can have no reasonable expectation of receiving the same level of funding when it is their turn at the trough.  Privileges, on the other hand, are something that are not only illegitimate but that which people feel deeply envious about and feel a moral justification in attacking.  Telling white males, for example, to check their privilege when they demand the same level of respect for their views as is accorded to various subaltern groups who demand as a right a privileged status due to intersectional concerns is an example of this, as is the difference between the growing intolerance of religious calls for moral reform and repentance and the freedom of speech demanded for purveyors of immorality and decadence.  And yet in this case rights, entitlements, and privileges are all intertwined.  Whether we view something as a right, an entitlement, or as a privilege often depends more on where we stand than on the justice of the matter.

But who is qualified to judge the justice of the matter?  Who can be trusted to be a fair judge of where the rights of various parties lie, and where the proper balance is between our freedoms and our obligations to society at large?  Who is to define the difference between speech which is unpopular but which nevertheless must be tolerated and that speech which can be prosecuted and forbidden?  Who is to define what obligations society can place on individuals and which ones individuals can place on society around them?  Who can be trusted to be a fair defender of rights against illegitimate encroachments, can help to moderate entitlements and keep them from causing ruinous costs to society for favored groups, and who can check privileges that have run amok?  Who can be viewed as a fair dealer and as a just mediator or arbiter in the disputes that we have in contemporary society about such matters of universally agreed importance but very fiercely contested defining and enforcing?  Who can not only support their judgments with the power to enforce them but also have the credibility with all parties involved to resolve such disputes rather than continually inflame them anew?

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, History, Musings and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Rights, Entitlements, And Privileges

  1. Catharine Martin says:

    It’s very difficult, if not impossible, when laws have descended into the morass of subjectiveness, for each side has its own viewpoint of what is and is not acceptable. If behavior is moderated by a universal standard, and enforced by that same standard, these problems would largely disappear. The unspoken rule of fairness has broken down and there is a “no holds barred” approach our dealings with others in business, politics and even socio-economic relationships. Everyone is offended by everything these days and the gloves are off. The rights of some are being stomped on to a ridiculous degree and people of priviledge are often being made to feel improperly guilty because of it. Our national priorities and sensibilities are wonky. For those to whom much is given, much is required; but we have to take that to heart wisely–and not be taken in by the charletans who masquerade as the “open-minded” ones, or “mouthpieces of the American public.”

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