"The real trick to life is not to be in the know, but to be in the mystery."
-Fred Alan Wolf

10 May 2018


Rights are equal and universal and are the way in which the sovereignty of the individual is fitted into the same slot, as it were, as the sovereignty of the state.

Few doubt, therefore, the importance of the idea and all that it has inspired in the way of constitution building.  It is the foundation stone of the liberal order, and for Popper, as for many others, the way to release reason into the community, and to produce a society open to innovation and experiment.

However, we should not neglect the difficulties associated with the human rights idea of which two in particular stand out as especially relevant to the times in which we live.

First, what exactly are our rights?  How are rights distinguished from mere interests and desires?  What prevents people from claiming as a right what they just happen to want, regardless of the effect on the common good?

Secondly, what are our duties and to whom or to what are our duties owed?  The American Declaration of Independence told us that all human beings are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  That relatively innocuous summary leaves open as many questions as it answers, and when Eleanor Roosevelt set out to draft the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, the list began to grow in ways that the American founders might very well have questioned.  Human rights which began life as basic freedoms  soon began to include elaborate claims to health, work, security, family life, and so on, which are available only if someone is prepared to provide them.  That which was conceived as a limitation to the power of the state, soon became a way of increasing that power, to the point where the state as guardian and provider occupies more and more of the space once allocated to the free acts of individuals. 

We have seen this process of rights inflation everywhere in the post-war world, and much of it issues either from declarations, such as that of the United Nations or from the courts, established to adjudicate our rights under this or that treaty.  The expansion of rights goes hand-in-hand with a contraction of duties.  The universalist vision of the Enlightenment conceives duties as owed indifferently to all mankind.  We have a general duty to do good, the beneficiaries of which are not bound to us by specific obligations, but are simply equal petitioners for a benefit that cannot, in fact, be distributed to them all.  No particular person comes before us as the irreplaceable object of our concern.  All are equal and none have an overriding claim.  In such circumstances I can easily be forgiven if I neglect them all, being unable to fulfill a duty that will, in any case, make little difference to the net sum of human happiness.

Sir Roger Scruton

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