A poster on the Red Line reads: “Good food is a basic right.” A sign at Harvard affirms: “Education is a human right.” Crowds in front of a Planned Parenthood clinic claim: “Your unborn child has a right to life”. The NRA insists upon their “right to bear arms”. Martin Luther King marched for“civil rights”. You can find many of these rights in the 1948 “Declaration of Human Rights”. Each ofthese assertions has strong, often vehement advocates. People literally die defending some of them.
However, in my opinion, these assertions are incomplete. The critical, often unrecognized and missing partners with each of these rights are the responsibilities that go with them. I believe each of our human rights is inextricably connected to both personal and social responsibilities. Consider education. Indeed, society has its responsibility to ensure that each of us can acquire the knowledge and skills we need to have a meaningful and satisfying life. However, on a personal level, we each have a responsibility to learn throughout our lives, to the extent of our abilities.
How can one vehemently assert the right for someone else’s unborn fetus to have the right to be born, without fulfilling with equal, or even greater, vehemence the responsibility for ensuring such children opportunities to become adults with meaningful and rewarding lives? What about the right to bear arms? Doesn’t that come with responsibilities to ensure those arms do no unjustified harm? We required our cars to be registered. Why shouldn’t a duty to vote be connected with our right to vote? It is deeply unfair and unjust to insist upon a right without insisting upon fulfillment of the responsibilities that are bound to that right. Rights and responsibilities are intertwined in a personal/social contract that make human societies livable.
So, let’s connect rights with responsibilities in our posters, our policies, our minds, and our actions. It is time to acknowledge their interdependence, and their greater power together, as we create more fair and just democracies in which we each fulfill, as we assert, our human responsibilities alongside our human rights.