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SOME NEW RIGHTS FOR THE 2010s: A NON-DECLARATION OF SOME NON-UNIVERSAL RIGHTS

03/01/2012

There have been many versions of the Ten Commandments, such as Arthur Hugh Clough`s poetic parody The Latest Decalogue (1862).  Declarations of (human) rights are also prone to manipulation, distortion and ridicule. The present list is intended as a modest alternative to such grand affirmations as the preamble to the United States` Declaration of Independence (1776) or the United Nations` Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).

1.1    A right to cause offence to others [But Preferably Not Too Often (BPNTO)].
1.2    A right to be caused offence (BPNTO).
1.3    Nobody has a right never to be caused offence.

These suggested rights are linked, in that all three have to do with the same thing, with causing and being caused offence, but any logical or moral connection between them is loose, so that you could accept any one of them and reject the other two without necessarily committing a logical error or being open to moral criticism on that score.  In considering the merits of these rights, it is interesting to note the view of some utilitarians, that when the possible “felicific” outcomes of possible actions are being compared and evaluated, it is reasonable to disregard any suffering (pain) arising solely from being caused offence.  Only 1.1 looks like a full-blown right (whether or not it is accepted as valid).  Exercise of 1.2 would require the existence of at least some other persons having a duty or disposition to cause you offence (and not merely a right to do so).  1.3 is a “non-right” or “no right”, a kind of “right” that lawyers and others can find hard to relate to conventional accounts of rights in relation to duties, claims, enforcement arrangements, etc.  (Such “rights” cannot be called “negative rights”, since that term is already in regular use with a different meaning.)  It is a feature of a social order that values personal freedom that many “rights” of this kind will be acknowledged.    

2.1   A right to challenge the beliefs of others (BPNTO).
2.2   A right to have your own beliefs challenged (BPNTO).
2.3   Nobody has a right never to have their beliefs challenged.

“Beliefs” is to be understood here as covering a broad spectrum of opinions and views, including but not limited to matters of fact and questions of right and wrong.  As with 1.1-1.3, these suggested rights are linked, in that all three have to do with the same thing, with beliefs being challenged, but any logical or moral connection between them…(as above).  Only 2.1 looks like a full-blown right…(as above). Exercise of 2.2 would require the existence of at least some other persons having a duty or disposition to challenge your beliefs (and not merely a right to do so).  2.3 is a “non-right” or “no right”…(as above). 

3.1   A right to question the actions of others, even when they claim that they are acting in accordance with their own customs and traditions (BPNTO).
3.2   A right to have your own actions questioned, even when you claim that you are acting in accordance with your own customs and traditions (BPNTO).
3.3   Nobody has a right never to have their actions questioned, even when they claim that they are acting in accordance with their own customs and traditions.

As with 1.1-1.3 and 2.1-2.3…(see above).

4.1   A right not to answer (some) questions.
4.2   Nobody has a right to insist that all their questions be answered.
These suggested rights sidestep the perennial debate about whether and in what circumstances it may be morally permissible to lie in answering a question, in which it has often been assumed or implied that all questions have to be answered.  Instead they focus on the distinction between questions that should be answered and questions that do not have to be answered, the latter in one of the many ways that answering can be avoided, ranging from the serious (such as insisting on a court order; pleading an over-riding right, such as to privacy or non-incrimination; affirming that, at your discretion, you will only answer questions from those who can show that they are entitled to have an answer; claiming that the cost, in time and money, of providing an answer would be excessive; refusing to answer; or simply staying silent) to the ingenious (such as giving an evasive response; pretending not to hear the question; changing the subject) and the absurd (such as affecting an inability to communicate in speech, writing or by any other means).  

5.1   A right to stereotype others (BPNTO).
5.2   A right to be stereotyped (BPNTO).
5.3   Nobody has a right never to be stereotyped.

As with 1.1-1.3, 2.1-2.3…(see above).        

6.1   A right to misunderstand others (BPNTO).
6.2   A right to be misunderstood (BPNTO).
6.3   Nobody has a right never to be misunderstood.

As with 1.1-1.3 and 2.1-2.3…(see above).

7.1   A right to ignore others (BPNTO).
7.2   A right to be ignored (BPNTO).
7.3   Nobody has a right never to be ignored.

As with 1.1-1.3, 2.1-2.3…(see above).

8.1   A right to make mistakes affecting others (BPNTO).
8.2   A right to be a victim of the mistakes of others (BPNTO).
8.3   Nobody has a right never to be a victim of the mistakes
        of others.

As with 1.1-1.3, 2.1-2.3…(see above).

9     A right not to be seriously physically harmed (shot, stabbed, violently assaulted, murdered, etc) without first being told the reason why.
10   A right to have (some) allowance made for your circumstances and your weaknesses by your family and friends and those in authority over you.

11   A right to (sometimes) not do as you would be done by.
12   A right to (sometimes) be angered and/or cast down by misfortune and adversity.
13   A right to (sometimes) not respond to uninvited messages: not answer the telephone, not reply to emails, texts and letters, etc.
14   A right not to be worried about, fussed over or pestered by well-wishers, except in moderation
15   A right not to be always at your best.

These suggested rights are at the opposite pole from absolute rights – rights seen as universally, permanently and unconditionally valid.  I do not see them as universal in either of two main senses of the term.  The first, that all rational compilers should in principle be able to agree whether a candidate right is valid, is clearly not true of the rights on my list.  (On the contrary, it is only my list, reflecting the sincerely held views of myself and some of my contemporaries.  I am not, however, advocating a wholly relativist position, since I would hold both that a fairly strong case can be offered in support of all these rights, and that some of them, especially those in the first three blocks, underpin the notion of intellectual freedom without which some institutions, including the modern university as a centre of scholarship and research, cannot thrive.)  And secondly, I would hesitate to claim that all the listed rights are possessed by the whole of humanity.  Moreover, while I several times refer to those who can possess (or infringe) rights as persons, I use that term loosely, with no implication that only human beings can possess (or infringe) rights.  Equally, these rights are plainly neither permanent nor unconditional.  They are impermanent in that there is no reason to suppose that, were they to find favour today, they would still appeal to the same extent at all future times, nor that someone like me, setting out to create a new list in, say, 50 years time, would come up with anything closely resembling the present 2011 list.  Nor should they be regarded as unconditional: possession of a right cannot in itself provide adequate warrant for its exercise.  Take, for example, the case where exercise of a right would involve doing things that, in the particular circumstances, could lead to serious harm to others, whether intentionally or otherwise.  It could be argued that the right should not be exercised unless, at the very least, it was possible to justify the possible harm by offering good reasons in its support. 

© Gabriel Newfield

[Reproduction in whole or in part permitted, provided source is acknowledged.]
E: gabrielnewfield@tiscali.co.uk
31 December 2011

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