22.6 Rights Without Duties
From Human Rights part of 'The Australian Achievement' by M Cooray (1996)

Hohfeld, a legal philosopher, emphasised the relationship between rights and duties and also the difference between right and privilege. Hohfeld emphasised that there cannot be a right without a duty. Right in one person presupposes a duty in another. The concept of a right without a duty is meaningless. Likewise he also distinguished between rights and privileges. A privilege is available on sufferance. It is a discretion vested in the person granting it. A right is an entitlement. On this analysis what are commonly called rights to employment, welfare, etc, are not rights. A right to employment is meaningless because there is no person who is under a duty to employ. Welfare is not a right. It is a privilege which is given to certain persons.

Whether one agrees with this analysis or not, it is undeniable that at the commonsense level a right involves a duty in another person or institution. As an essential commonsense corollary, it must also involve an acceptance of that duty by the person who is subject to it. It is ironic in society today that while more and more people are demanding rights, fewer and fewer people are concerned about duties, least of all those who are most vocal in the assertion of rights. Governments, the Human Rights Commission and many other government agencies provide doubtful leadership in this regard. They are educating people about their rights and are attempting to make more and more rights available with no reference to logic and commonsense. But they seem unconcerned about the need to educate people about duties and the importance of a sense of responsibility.

A dangerous byproduct of the welfare state and the growth of government is a profound attitudinal change in society which makes people demand more and more and contribute less and less. This transformation of the social psyche has taken place imperceptibly to the point that it unconsciously pervades the entire society. The preoccupation with rights (particularly state created social and economic rights) has become an obsession. Although this is not an intrinsic evil, the pursuit of rights becomes self defeating when it is unaccompanied by the commitment to duties. The pressures exercised by interest groups have become the dominant feature of the modern era. These demands come not only from the poor and the underprivileged, but also from privileged academic, bureaucratic, social and business groups. At the same time there is a deafening silence on the question of individual responsibility.

The interventionist welfare state has become a super patriarchal entity from which individual members have come to expect solutions to all problems. Rights are being demanded and duties forgotten.

The Bible emphasises duties and responsibilities (not rights). The Ten Commandments are duties. Duties have been more important than rights in the Australian Achievement. The emphasis on rights to the near exclusion of duties and responsibilities in modern society is a challenge. There is a grave danger in the push towards legislative recognition of subjective (so-called) rights in response to the demands of politically influential pressure groups.

A duty-centred society is preferable to a right-centred society. If individuals are concerned about their duties, responsibilities and obligations, they cannot but be concerned about the rights and freedoms of others. A right-centred society is one in which individuals assert their rights. They are encouraged by the Human Rights Commission and like Commonwealth and State bodies, to demand rights, with no consideration for the effect of those demands on other people, eg the right to protest and demonstrate conflicts with the right of pedestrians and motorists to use the public roads for the purpose for which roads are built.

Governments and pressure groups which focus on rights, give no thought to how rights can operate in the absence of a climate in which the importance of duties is emphasised.

There is no end to the so-called rights which can be demanded. A right-conscious society, in effect, recognises a few rights and neglects many others. The rights that are recognised are those which are demanded by the powerful, the aggressive and the nasty.

There cannot be a right without a duty. An endless cacophony of demands by interest groups for rights has become a dominant feature of the modern Australian State (fed by legislation which encourages these demands). At the same time there is a deafening silence on the question of individual responsibility. The time has come to realise and to emphasise that rights, whether material or political, depend on the discharge of duties. Wealth and prosperity are created by effort. Only continuing effort can sustain them. Western societies through effort have achieved a level of prosperity unparalleled in history.

History has continually demonstrated that the greatest of civilisations decline and fall when they succumb to indulgence at the expense of discipline and endeavour. The fate of Egyptian and Roman civilisations are prime examples. It is not too early for Western Civilization to heed the supreme lesson of human experience.