Rights Versus Responsibilities

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We have an epidemic of rights today and a drought of responsibility.  A number of years ago when I was a first-year teacher I had the following experience.  I was teaching at Guadalupe Area Project (GAP), otherwise charitably known as a “dropout school.”  It was mostly a school for students who had been kicked out of the St. Paul Public School System for a variety of reasons.  The school was started and run by a Sister Giovanni.  She was a leader in migrant relations on the West Side of St. Paul.  It was a largely Latino community.  Many of the residents on the West Side were recent immigrants from Mexico or Central America.

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Sister Giovanni believed in giving kids and people a second chance.  She started GAP to help students who were displaced from the public school system.  We had kids of all types and most were not traditional “school material.”  Some were chronic truants, some were chronic troublemakers, some had chronic learning difficulties, some had chronic behavior problems, and some were just lost souls.  It was a challenge working with these young folks but one I relished at the time. 

D943_130_551_1200One day a young student came to me and complained that he felt that his rights had been violated.  At the time, I took any students complaints very seriously particularly when it concerned rights.  I listened to his problem and asked him what he wanted me to do about it.  He asked if I would intercede on his behalf with Sister Giovanni, who was our principal.  I wanted to show the young man that I was concerned and caring and so I agreed to carry his problem to Sister G as she was known.  She was feared and loved by almost all students so it did not surprise me that he thought I might have more luck with Sister G than he would have. 

unnamedI went to Sister G’s office and knocked on her door.  She opened it and welcomed me in.  We exchanged some pleasantries and she asked me what I needed.  I began to explain the issue that the student had brought to me.  Sister G listened attentively.  When I was done, she smiled and nodded reassuringly.  I thought “Great, I have been successful.”  She then spoke, “This is your first year teaching right John?”  “Yes, it is,” I answered.  “Well, I have heard the issue and I may address it later, but I want to give you an important piece of advice now.  Students just like the majority of people will always demand their rights, but they seldom demand their responsibilities.”  Then, she gave me the philosophy that I have never forgotten.  “John,” she continued, “for every right there is always a responsibility.”  That was the end of our discussion.

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It is now fifty some years later and I see a government under siege by gun toting extremists demanding their first amendment rights.  I see citizens screaming their rights to not wear a mask when required by businesses or government offices.  I see women and men yelling about their rights to get grades that they believe they deserve or that their children deserve.  Everywhere I look it seems some American is on a YouTube video attacking someone because they believe that their rights have been infringed upon.

The people that invaded the US Capital were loudly proclaiming that it was their building.  The implication was that they had a right to enter it if they choose to because they owned it.  But ownership of property implies a stewardship relationship.  If you own property, you have a responsibility to take care of it.  The vandals that broke into the Capital destroyed property, stole goods, and even shit on the floors.  Is this the way anyone takes care of property that they own? 

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Rights:

Do most Americans even know what a right is or what it means to have a responsibility?  A right is defined by “Webster’s Online as:

1: qualities (such as adherence to duty or obedience to lawful authority) that together constitute the ideal of moral propriety or merit moral approval.

2: something to which one has a just claim.

In the definition above, the “just claim to something” seems to be the most common usage as it applies to U.S. citizens.  A large majority of people think that they deserve something or are entitled to something.  We have heard many pundits bemoan the entitlement mentality that is immensely popular today.  I believe that the concepts of entitlement, narcissism, and rights weave a peculiar pattern on the psyche of many Americans.  The mindset that results is overly sensitive to any behaviors or efforts that impinge on the so-called rights of these Americans. 

The Founders of the USA talked about “inalienable rights.”  An inalienable right can be defined as, “a right that cannot be restrained or repealed by human laws.”  Some examples include the following rights that are deemed as inalienable:

  • To act in self-defense.
  • To own private property.
  • To work and enjoy the fruits of one’s labor.
  • To move freely within the county or to another country.
  • To worship or refrain from worshipping within a freely chosen religion.
  • To be secure in one’s home.
  • To think freely.

There is an International Bill of Rights which lists the following rights:

  • The right to equality and freedom from discrimination.
  • The right to life, liberty, and personal security.
  • Freedom from torture and degrading treatment.
  • The right to equality before the law.
  • The right to a fair trial.
  • The right to privacy.
  • Freedom of belief and religion.
  • Freedom of opinion.

There is even a list of 30 Basic Human Rights.  Such lists are impressive if a bit naïve.  To say that rights cannot be taken away is ludicrous.  Rights hardly existed for many people even through much of the Twentieth Century.  Freedom and rights grow out of power.  They always have and they always will.  Without power, one may claim a right but never have any opportunity to practice it.  Government power, military power, police power and personal power all either defend or attack our rights.  Some governments giveth rights and some taketh away rights.  It is inspiring to think that we have “inalienable rights” but without power, an appeal to our rights is hollow and worthless.

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Responsibilities:

“Webster’s Online” defines responsibility as:

1: the quality or state of being responsible: such as

a: moral, legal, or mental accountability

b: RELIABILITY, TRUSTWORTHINESS

2: something for which one is responsible.

Looking at the definition of responsible, I wonder if any of the extremists ever considered the idea of moral or legal accountability?   Obviously no more than they thought of the idea of reliability or trustworthiness with the constitution of the laws of the country they profess to love.  How ironic, that they were chanting USA, USA, as they attempted to tear down the foundations that America is built on.  Nothing is more sacred to American democracy than a free and fair election.  However, these fanatics were willing to follow their deluded leader in his attempt to overthrow an election that was certified free and fair by almost every court in the country. 

Responsibilities do not grow out of power.  Responsibilities are the currency that we use to pay for our rights.  Nothing is free in this world.  Rights come with a price tag.  The price tag is paid for in responsibilities that accrue to our “inalienable” rights.  For instance, I have a personal right to swing my hand.  However, I also have a responsibility to stop swinging it when it interferes with the mobility of another human being.  I can ignore this responsibility, but the consequence can easily be the loss of my own right.  In a society we have many laws which become the responsibility of people to obey.  In return for this responsibility, personal rights are granted for a wide range of endeavors and activities.  This is the quid pro quo of rights and responsibilities. 

Another example is my right to my own opinion.  I may dislike a particular minority.  I may well be prejudiced against another race or ethnic group and believe them to be inferior to my own group.  There is no law against prejudice.  Nevertheless, we have a responsibility while a member of a multi-cultural society to avoid discrimination against other people and groups. 

Discrimination is an overt act and not simply an innate prejudice.  A society can tolerate a great deal of latitude when it comes to the stupidity of prejudice, but that latitude disappears when individuals are subjected to harassment and abuse because of the color of their skin. 

It is sad that everywhere we look today, individuals in America are clamoring for their rights.  Yelling in restaurants, offices, planes, schools, and private businesses that they have rights.  Screaming that the constitution gives them the right to do something without any responsibilities.  They protest that they are going to contact a lawyer and intend to sue someone since their rights were stolen.  None of these people want to recognize much less acknowledge that they have responsibilities.  They want their rights, but they do not want to pay the cost of their rights. 

Conclusions:

we-are-a-nation-of-narcissists-300x198-1What is the solution to the problem that we are facing today?  A poisonous cultural stew of narcissism and entitlement driven by a rights only oriented mentality that thinks they are above responsibilities.  I have reached the point in this essay where it would be easy to say, “Sorry, I don’t have the answer.” Or else, I could now list several bromides which may or may not have much effect.  I have the following solution which I believe in 100 percent.  I doubt that it would be acceptable to Americans as too many people have grown privileged, lazy, and indulgent in this country. 

imagesMy solution is for a National Required Service (NRS) that starts at the age of 18 for every man and woman in America.  Upon finishing high school and before starting college, every American would need to attend the National Required Service.  They would have two options.  The first option would be to choose between a two-year service or a four-year service.  A two-year service would be the minimum.  The advantage of a longer service would lie in the educational benefits that would accrue.  Serve two years and you would receive two years of financial credit towards any public education institution of your choice in the country including vocational education as well as liberal arts.  Choose a four-year tour of service and you would receive four years of financial credit towards the public institution of your desire.

The second choice facing the individual entering the NRS would be which track to join.  The NRS would have two tracks.  A civilian track would involve services like the Peace Corp or the AmeriCorps.  A military track would use the various branches Army, Navy, Coast Guard and Air Force to recruit soldiers from the NRS enrollees. 

Students would not go directly into college or the work force from high school.  Every 18-year-old youth in this country would have a responsibility to give back to the country that sustained him or her. No one except someone with a severe medical or family emergency would be exempted from this service.  No matter how much money you had or how influential your parents were, you would be legally required to attend the NRS.  Many enrollees would benefit from a chance to experience life away from home and to grow up some before entering into college or vocational training.  They would further benefit by having enough monetary credits to pay for their education or training and not to come away from school in debt for the next twenty years of their lives.

This program would convey rights to millions of youths and also a sense of responsibility.  The lingering miasma of entitlement that exists today would be dispelled as American youth learned about their responsibilities to their country.  They would be gratified by the role that they played and proud to have served their country.  We do not need a war to teach people about service to their country and to help them obtain the pride that so many military people have achieved upon completing their tours of duty. 

 

 

The 2nd of Gandhi’s Seven Social Sins: Pleasure without Conscience.

A number of years ago when I first started graduate school, I was talking to a professor who had just purchased a brand new yacht.  This was nearly 30 years ago and I was pretty judgmental (I am hoping I am somewhat less judgmental today). I remember saying to him exactly what was on my mind:  “Don’t you feel guilty with all of the poverty and problems we are facing in this world, to spend your money on such an extravagant purchase?”  To this day (Perhaps, my continued naiveté) I remain both shocked and amazed at his reply.  “John, if I can afford it, I deserve it.”  I was shocked because it seemed so insensitive to the world’s problems and I was amazed because I had expected that someone who had earned a Ph.D. would have had a more reflective and thoughtful reply.  Instead, he simply parroted back to me what I had labeled as the “Protestant Ethic.”  According to Wikipedia:

“The Protestant work ethic (or the Puritan work ethic) is a concept in theology, sociology, economics and history which emphasizes hard work, frugality and prosperity as a display of a person’s salvation in the Christian faith. The phrase was initially coined in 1904 by Max Weber in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

Somewhere in the course of the development of American Capitalism, guilt or perhaps conscience was replaced by the moral certainty that if you only work hard enough, you can spend your money as frivolously as you want to.  At least, this was the interpretation I drew and continue to draw from my understanding of the Protestant Work Ethic.  In some sense, I can understand this idea.  If you work hard, why should you not be able to harvest the fruits of your labor?  Why should you be expected to share with those who are less fortunate?  After all, how many of the “less” fortunate are “less” because of their own laziness, stupidity, inertia or lack of ambition?  Should I have to pay more taxes to support people who don’t want to work or whose entire goal in life is to eat their way to obesity, drink their way to liver failure or drug their minds to an out of this world zombie state?  Why should I have to put up with the lack of ethics that it would appear so many of the indigent and poor in this world have?  A study in England in 2009 found that:

Four out of five people see nothing wrong with stealing from their workplace – while more than half think it acceptable for a care giver to persuade an elderly person to rewrite their will, according to a new study.
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1211629/How-80-think-OK-steal-work-study-reveals-wavering-moral-compass.html#ixzz2RU850BbL

In some sense, the Protestant Ethic is a direct refutation of the morals that I had been given in my early Catholic school training. Perhaps, that is why Catholics and Protestants did not get along in years gone by.  I remember every lunch break being told by one of the nuns or sisters at my Catholic school to be sure to “clean my plate.”  When queried why this was so important I always received the same reply “Because of the starving kids in India.”  Somehow, I was expected to feel guilty for these starving children in some far away country who did not have enough food to eat.  Was it my fault that they did not have enough to eat?  However, it was okay if I cleaned my plate and did not leave any scraps.  Kind of reminds me of when I go to a Chinese Buffet and it says on the sign posted:  “Please do not take more than you can eat.”  I weight 147 lbs. and scrupulously (well, sometimes) obey this admonition.  I watch the 400 lb. plus people with plates that are stacked higher than the Eiffel Tower and I wonder if they saw the sign or is it simply that they are on a diet?  See, there I go again, being judgmental.

Well, here it is nearly 30 years later and the question I posed to my professor colleague still seems quite legitimate to me.  When is it okay to indulge?  When can I binge? When is it permissible to go buy my brand new Ferrari or brand new yacht?  What would Sister Evangeline say if she knew I was spending $350,000 dollars or more to purchase a new boat that I might only use two or three times per year?  What would Martin Luther say?  I can imagine Luther saying: “Well, John, don’t worry about it. You are supporting the economy. Every boat you buy is a job for some boat builder in India or Pakistan or some other place where the kids don’t have enough to eat.”  “Thank You Martin Luther, now I don’t feel so guilty.”  Hooray for the Protestant Work Ethic!

Here is what the Gandhi Institute has to say about this issue:

Pleasure Without Conscience: This is connected to wealth without work. People find imaginative and dangerous ways of bringing excitement to their otherwise dull lives. Their search for pleasure and excitement often ends up costing society very heavily. Taking drugs and playing dangerous games cause avoidable health problems that cost the world hundreds of billions of dollars in direct and indirect health care facilities. Many of these problems are self-induced or ailments caused by careless attitudes. The United States spends more than $250 billion on leisure activities while 25 million children die each year because of hunger, malnutrition, and lack of medical facilities. Irresponsible and unconscionable acts of sexual pleasure and indulgence also cost the people and the country very heavily. Not only do young people lose their childhood but innocent babies are brought into the world and often left to the care of the society. The emotional, financial, and moral price is heavy on everyone. Gandhi believed pleasure must come from within the soul and excitement from serving the needy, from caring for the family, the children, and relatives. Building sound human relationships can be an exciting and adventurous activity. Unfortunately, we ignore the spiritual pleasures of life and indulge in the physical pleasures which are “pleasure without conscience.”

Fromhttp://www.rabbitadvocacy.com/gandhi_teachings.htm

A person I really admire is the teacher and prophet OSHO.  OSHO also believes that all the violence in the world comes from the need people have to address the boredom and meaninglessness in their daily lives. People who are bored and who feel that their lives have no meaning turn to violence and or drugs in an effort to fill their lives with something that excites them or makes them feel alive. The problem with such stimulation is that it never really fills the void and as with any panacea it is only temporary. The void returns and the need to find new or greater stimulation also returns.  The cycle is not broken by the search for outside stimulation since the only real meaning of our lives must come from within.  No matter how great the wealth we achieve, no matter how many titles we accrue, no matter how famous we become and no matter how many people want our autographs, this kind of stimulation can never fill the void that we have if we do not find real meaning for our existence.

Let us pose the central issue here (Pleasure without Conscience) in the form of series of questions. Each question puts a slightly different slant on the issue:  Here are some ways to reflect on the issue:

  • How much pleasure is it okay to feel before I feel guilty?
  • If I am enjoying my life, should I feel guilty?
  • Do I have to feel guilty if I am feeling great pleasure?
  • Does a sense of conscience have anything to do with my personal pleasure?
  • Do I need to tie the concept of pleasure in with conscience?

Depending on which way we posit the question we will come up with different answers.  Try the exercise yourself and see what you find as your personal answers. For me, I would answer some of these questions in the negative and some in the positive. Nevertheless, such a pedantic method of addressing the issue actually ignores what I think Gandhi was really getting at.  I don’t think this is an issue of us not enjoying our lives or not finding pleasure but it is more of what I have come to think of as a “Happy Days” issue. Do you remember the sitcom that ran from the mid-seventies to mid-eighties?  It featured Ron Howard as a too good to be true teenager and Henry Winkler as a thuggish type of Greaser.   The term “Happy Days” was associated with how many Americans felt about the period of time between the end of the Korean War and the beginning of the Vietnam War.  Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, I Love Lucy and the Mickey Mouse Club show were only a few of the sitcoms to depict a happy America where all was right with the world and Americans knew only bliss and prosperity.

Those “Happy Days” for middle class White male Americans were not so happy for the rest of the world never mind the many groups and constituencies in the USA who were denied rights, served excessive prison terms, could not find employment and were often subject to abuse and/or lynching. I refer here to minority groups and women in the USA during our “Happy Days” period.  One could argue that either stupidity or a lack of conscience was a prerequisite for putting on “Happy Days” blinders. Kind of like those folks who miss the “Good Old Days” down south.  Those nostalgic summer days when the happy slaves would sing and dance all day long in the cotton fields.  At the end of the day, they would trudge happily home to their cozy cabins to sit by the fire-place and eat their fill of watermelon, sweet potato pie and Kentucky Fried Chicken.  Before going to bed, the young slaves would all have cute stories read to them by Uncle Remus.  Stories that would prepare the young slaves to get ahead in a world dominated by discrimination and non-citizenship.  No doubt migrant workers, women and many other minorities would have their own version of the “Happy Days” fantasy that dominated American Psyche for so long. In fact, there are many Americans who still believe in the “Happy Days” fantasy.

The point I am getting at is that no matter how you look at it, it is immoral and unethical to divorce Pleasure from Conscience.  To do so, is to be guilty of at best a form of benign neglect and at worst, a criminal conspiracy to keep other people degraded and denied the same opportunities as we might have.  Christians should all be familiar with many of Jesus’s teachings on this subject:

  • “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”  Mark 10:25
  •  “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”   Mark 10:21
  •  “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?”  Matthew 16:26

Clearly anyone who claims to be a follower of Jesus Christ could not put profit or pleasure above conscience. Jesus was all about helping others even at the expense of his own life.  His entire mission was to help those who were poor, sick or downtrodden.  Is there anyone who could do this without a conscience?  Perhaps we have focused too much in the past few decades on success and getting ahead.  This intense focus may have allowed many of us to put our consciences aside with the result that they seem to have atrophied or in many cases disappeared.  Too many people now measure success by how much money they have made and not how many people they have helped. Perhaps it is time we start focusing on conscience again.  Pleasure without conscience is simply hedonism.

Ok, time for questions:

What pleasures do you have that you may sacrifice your conscience for?  Do you think it is possible to have both conscience and pleasure?  What does it mean to have an “ethical” conscience?  Can we have too much conscience?  Do you think people should have more pleasure or more conscience?  Why?  What about yourself? Where do you fall on this issue?

Life is just beginning.

I wrote this blog more than four years ago.  Many have read it during the past few years.  With hindsight, I can see that we have gone further down the path.  Our political systems are rife with a lack of conscience.  Furthermore, this lack of conscience is justified by a “Prosperity Gospel” which preaches that:  financial blessing and physical well-being are always the will of God and that faith, positive speech, and donations to religious causes will increase one’s material wealth. 

In other words, that God rewards increases in faith with increases in health and/or wealth.  Thus, if you are wealthy, you are a “true believer”, anointed by God and deserving of your wealth.  The poor and sick are not true believers and thus are deserving of their fate and little or no sympathy or help.

Too many of us have given up on conscience and have become more and more Amoral.  We don’t care what we do or the consequences of our actions as long as they are “legal.”  Unfortunately, the law has never been a good barometer for ethics and morality.  The law has too frequently been usurped by the rich and powerful to promote their own self interests.   A history of the Supreme Court decisions in the USA would show this truth as would the Nazi Laws in Germany during the 30’s or the slavery and apartheid laws that existed throughout history in many parts of the world.   Law does not make right.  It never did and it never will.

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