What are ‘rights’, anyway?

By July 24, 2012Politics, Society

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:

Reading should be a right, not a privilege. Make it cheaper with this coupon. Save 10% on your next order, up to a maximum of $15.00. Expires August 1st, 2012.


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.

Join the discussion 14 Comments

  • Rupert Wyndham says:


    The late, and some say great but, at any rate, considerable jurist, Lord Hailsham, was given to occasional pithy, no-nonsense declarations. One related to this very question. “A right” he declared “is whatever you can enforce.”

    Leftie’s don’t like that kind of non-pc approach to life. I find it stimulating.



  • Bryan Leyland says:

    What you saying appeals to me greatly. i have always maintained that there is no such thing as “human rights” only “human privileges”. What people regard as rights are actually the priveliges that have been acquired at a considerable cost – as a result of living in the civilised western society.

    If human rights were called “human privileges” it would make it clear to everyone that they should be grateful for the privileges that our forefathers won for us and be prepared to stand up and fight for them when they are threatened. At the same time, we should also fight for extending these privileges to the less fortunate people’s of the world.

  • Art Raiche says:

    Those who believe that there are certain inalienable rights should read a bit of history. Only the truly blind fail to understand that Might makes Right. Every individual in a given society has only those rights/privileges that are allowed by the laws of that society and the nature in which they are enforced. Should that society be overwhelmed by another, through political, military and /or economic, that pattern of what is allowed may change rather drastically, depending upon the nature of the invader. Phrases such as slavery and mass slaughter occasionally come to mind. Had Japan succeeded in invading Australia, can you picture a Robert Mann trying to lecture his putative executioner of slave overseer about his idea of rights? If an untoward geological or astronomical event should remove substantial infrastructure, those left alive would be left to the mercies of mob violence. The point is that what we see as a right depends very strongly on prosperity and the ability to maintain civil order.
    A Bill of Rights essentially transfers powers from elected representatives to an unelected judiciary, usually chosen from a privileged class, and often badly out of touch with tois pollois. Essentially the US bill of rights is nothing more than a subsection of constitutional amendments. In that sense, we already have the ability to fashion one based on certain individual amendments being passed. Amendments always have unforeseen consequences, sometimes beneficial and often otherwise.

  • Implied in all discussions of rights is a ‘They’ whose responsibility it is to grant these rights. Those who invoke the concept of rights must believe that They are generally benevolent (since one is hardly going to invoke the concept when faced with, for example, a hungry lion) but at the same time They are clearly not doing their job properly (or else we wouldn’t need to remind them that such-and-such a thing should be a right).

    The example that you provide above demonstrates this: reading _should_ be a right and not a privilege, but it seems that it currently isn’t one, and thus the book supplier is (through their coupon) helping Them to do what They really should be doing unaided.

    In fact, the invoker of rights relates to They as does a spoilt child to its parents: he/she feels entitled to benefits and is affronted by any suggestion of reciprocity or responsibility. For this reason, to enter into a discussion with someone about whether something should be a right, or whether there should be a bill of rights, is to have missed the opportunity of a much more useful discussion about the basis for this sense of entitlement.

    If one must use the concept of rights, a solid foundation is ‘might makes right’. While unpalatable at first sight, at least this gets us on the right track. The above-mentioned lion takes no parental responsibility for me, but may well be deterred if I carry a rifle.

  • […] is its opposite, which is that the right to vote carries with it the responsibility to vote. As I wrote in an early post, I am not much of a supporter of the need for an Australian Bill of Rights, being conscious of the […]

  • margaret says:

    What I would like to have a go at is the problem of adults who want ‘reproductive rights’ being fully aware of the rights of the child. If there is one group of people that I care about having rights more than any other it’s children.
    If governments and society truly believed in the world they control and inhabit and walk through as survivors of childhoods good and bad, they would ensure that future children brought into it have the right to grow into adulthood free of violence, poverty and discrimination. Yes, the right.
    Oh and it’s not a rant about right to life either. My view is that contraception is a responsibility of both people engaged in sexual activity but it’s the woman’s right to end an accidental or for whatever reason unwanted pregnancy, because no woman terminates pregnancy as a form of contraception.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Governments (at least those in elective democracies) respond to what we want, so your impetus has to be on the rest of our society. If it is to be a right (no violence, poverty or discrimination) then that is a powerful lot of legislation, isn’t it. How would the laws be enforced?

      I agree with you, as it happens. I just see the full horror of trying to rectify everything through legislation.

      • margaret says:

        Sex education in Primary schools as a part of the school curriculum for a start – not just a travelling truck and some giraffe who provides a modicum of information about how the body works.
        Sexuality education as it is termed in the Netherlands – it also educates about the emotional and relational aspect of sex.

  • […] is the status of  this supposed right to know? I have written about ‘rights ‘ before, and see most of them as empty of meaning. Children are not endowed with natural rights, and […]

  • Margaret says:

    “People do have a right to be bigots you know” – I can’t help thinking that the “right” to free speech that the attorney-general defended with this comment was being (recklessly) put to the test on Q&A.

  • […] website that refer to the notion of ‘human rights’ of one kind or another, and have a deal of disquiet about the common use of the term. ‘Rights’, in my judgment, are privileges conferred by law, but in common parlance […]

  • Peter Cunningham says:

    History demonstrates the only rights that are tangible are those which result from conflict – and then only until the inevitable challenges must be resisted.
    That governments, bureaucracies and eternal doogooders legislate away the natural right that all life has on earth to survive and effectively resist assault says all.
    We have assigned our safety and security to reactive bureaucracies – effective most often only once a victim(s) has been created.
    Faced with assault from human predators who have the advantage of simply ignoring law – those who abide by law are predator fodder.
    But for those who react, then the second wave of assault must be faced – that of police effecting laws as the victim’s split second decisions are dismembered in the courts at the victim’s considerable / destructive expense over days or weeks.
    Don’t talk to me about “rights” or “privileges” when we have prostituted ourselves to social engineering systems that deprive us of a natural ability to effectively defend self, property and the wellbeing of others.
    Be it a “right” or a “privilege” – both words infer subservience to another – and unless meddling is strongly and often violently challenged – then both mean zippo except as a playground for expensive lawyers, politicians and bureaucrats.

  • […] between what is actually happening and what some think ought to happen. You see it in the notion of ‘rights’, for example.It has other consequences as well. One is a tendency to judge what happened in the […]

  • […] of lectures to an adult education class, in the early 1960s. I’ve written about rights, too — here, for […]

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