Recently in a discussion about something else entirely a question came up about rights and duties. This is an important topic in the Just Third Way of Economic Personalism, for “personalism” derives from “person,” and “person” — legally speaking — is that which has rights. This is important in the greater scheme of things because it is by exercising rights (especially life, liberty, and private property) that we become “virtuous,” that is, more fully human . . . which, according to Aristotle and other philosophers, is the reason and purpose of life.
|Aristotle and the meaning of life.|
First, what is a right? That is easy. A right is the power to do or not do a thing or things in relation to others. In other words, if you have the right to walk down a certain street any time you want, that means you have the power to walk down that street anytime you want, and no one may legitimately stop you. And what is “power”? Power is the ability for doing.
Many people think that a duty is the opposite of a right. No, the opposite of a right — remember, a right is the power to do or not do a thing or things in relation to others — is “no right.” If having a right is the power to do or not to something, then having “no right” is the lack of power to do or not do a thing or things in relation to others.
But what, then, is a duty? A duty is not the opposite of a right but rather the correlative of a right. A duty is the obligation to do or not do a thing or things in relation to others, which clearly is not the opposite of a right, but just as obviously necessarily accompanies a right.
Now, because human beings are not only persons — having rights — but political animals, and the exercise of a right requires another against whom the right is exercised, no right can be exercised in a vacuum, just as there can be no duty without another to whom another is obliged. Because a person has rights, others have duties to that person, and because others have rights, a person also has duties . . . even if right and duties are not opposites.
|Not quite what Aristotle meant|
The fact that human beings are political animals, and no right can be exercised without the existence or at least presence of other persons leads to a very confusing dilemma, actually a paradox. People have rights absolutely — at least the natural rights of life, liberty, and private property — but at the same time no one can exercise rights absolutely. Natural rights are (as might be expected) by nature and cannot be taken away; they are absolute and inalienable. The exercise of those very same rights, however, is socially determined and necessarily limited, otherwise anyone’s exercise of a right would automatically infringe on someone else’s rights.
Politics, in fact, is in large part the art of people trying to figure out how to live together while optimizing the exercise of rights and minimizing the limitation of rights. It’s not that some people have rights and others don’t, or that some are incapable of exercising rights, but that the institutions of society ‚ our “social habits” — must be arranged to ensure as full participation as possible by everyone without harm to anyone. Otherwise, people must organize and carry out acts of social justice to ensure that society works for everyone.#30#