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Rights and duties

The benchmark references and limits embodied in the principles of equality, reciprocity, proportionality, responsibility and freedom, along with their related values such as truth, solidarity, etc., are both rights and duties. These rights and duties are closely linked to the human forces, much like opportunities and constraints are linked to the natural forces. For instance gravity is both an opportunity for skiers which have the right to go downhill and a constraint for them as they have a moral duty to control their speed, for their own security and that of Others.

One could say that the opportunities and constraints given by the natural forces are like the right to BE and to evolve and this right to BE implies a moral duty of reciprocity equal to that of the Others.

There is symmetry between rights and duties. Both our rights and our duties end where those of the Others begin. At first glance, these rights and duties seem to be barriers between individuals, but actually, they are bridges that link beings to each other. Symmetry unites them. These ties are immensely powerful, they bind human beings to form Mankind into a true community.

When symmetries are so lightly broken, rights and duties become more human: concepts like tolerance, forgiveness, goodwill and kindness are then introduced. A light rupture of symmetry softens the rigidity of the principles, ties become stronger, friendship, brotherhood, solidarity develop It is through these links or bridges that the social fabric is irrigated.

Everyone may read this text under the light of his own choosing. A legal expert might retain the importance of rights and duties, while a physician might favour the relational aspect these benchmark-bridges create between him and his patient. Life’s complexity prevents us from fixating on any single aspect of reality. A holistic view fosters the approach to truth.

While democracies struggle to promote human rights, philosophers stumble over the Kantian rhetoric of Man’s duties.  Duty, Kant tells us, is  “The need to act out of respect for the law.” If it were out of respect for natural quantum laws, I would agree with him, but he referred to a “metaphysical” moral law too pure to be true.

As I see it, duties are only the inverted image of rights, as seen in a mirror. They are inseparable, and are the result of the principle of reciprocity.

The right to fish in the river next to my home only makes sense if the residents upstream of me are duty-bound not to pollute this river. One’s right ends where the Other’s begins. I am not the only one who wishes to go trout fishing: I accept that others also fish.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child makes the best of intentions considering past abuses: it offers an impressive list of children’s rights, but alas, mentions none of their duties! How could anyone yield to the illusion that a child can have rights without offsetting duties, not even that most elementary duty of respecting the rights of Others?

Children ignore or underestimate their duty to respect their teachers. That is also because people confuse the “equal right to be” with equality in status. Children have the right to be and to live, just as adults do, but their status is not  equal. They must start by learning the rules of the great game of life, by being educated about their rights and duties. They must become autonomous, as far as possible, before they get equal rights to adults.