Yesterday I received an email from a book supplier I have used in the past, offering me a discount if I bought another book. The discount coupon looked like this:
And that started me thinking, once again, about rights, one of the slipperiest concepts in our discourse. I’ve never been happy with the notion of ‘rights’, let alone with Australia’s possessing a Bill of them. The message above helps to explain why.
At first glance, you wonder where reading is a privilege. Can’t we all read? Do Australians have a ‘right to read’? My response is mixed. Children are required by law to attend school or to gain education in other approved ways. That is the law. Parents are required to ensure that their children do go to school or receive education in an approved way. These are duties, as I see it. We are not free to avoid being educated, which isn’t quite the same thing. You could say that the Australian child has a ‘right’ to be educated, to be able to read. That’s expressing it as a right. The other way is as a responsibility. If there are rights, it seems to me, there must be comparable responsibilities.
Funny thing is, many people respond to the notion of ‘rights’, but are much less enamoured of responsibilities.There is a clamour (of a kind anyway) for a Bill of Rights, apparently modelled on the American — though I wonder how many of its supporters realise that the American one includes the right to bear arms. I’m not at all sure that Australia would be any the better for its creation.
I have yet to be persuaded that human beings have any natural rights whatever. When we say that a child has a right to be allowed to live a full life that is simply an aspiration. We would like that to be the case. As parents we have the charge of the child for several years, sharing it with the school and the peer group from age five onwards. So we are able, to a degree, to confer such a right on our child. But it takes a state and its government, with all the persuasive power, law and regulation at its disposal to make that aspiration a true ‘right’ enforceable at law, like your receipt of an old-age pension once you have reached the defined age.
And it is only when you start to see how you would word such a right that you begin to realise how tricky this all is. The way we generally work it is to prescribe what people can’t do, thereby creating space for people to be ‘free’. So we write laws that forbid ourselves from uttering hateful speech about others, or from driving at a speed higher than a given measurement, or from pretending that the goods being offered for sale satisfy a given standard when they do not. It is cumbersome and it is time-consuming — and it makes Australia one of the most highly regulated nations in the world. But it does not, and cannot, guarantee that a child’s life will be full.
My guess is that those who support a Bill of Rights think that its enactment would mean that everything would be much simpler. I doubt it.
Let me give another example of what I see as the problem with rights. The World Health Organisation defines ‘reproductive rights’ as ‘the basic right of all couples and individuals to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing and timing of their children …’. You’ll see that ‘responsibly’ is in there. But its placement there is at odds with the sense of the ‘right’. You either have such a right — to decide how many children you are going to have — or you don’t. What one person thinks is responsible behaviour may seem self-indulgent to some and self-punitive to others. Since only a society can confer rights it would seem to me that the society would need to decide what ‘responsibly’ actually meant.
Like to have a go at that? I could write a whole post just on the question of whether or not our society does have an interest in how many children a family has, and what if anything it should do about it. But that’s enough for now.