I’ve been having an interesting discussion with Ellen Hawley, over at Notes from the UK (you can pick it up, if so inclined, down in the comments after this post). I thought we’d both wandered away from the conversation, but it turns out that she’s been mulling over it, as have I. So instead of responding at length on her blog, I thought I’d bring the conversation here and invite you all to join in.
The question is: What do we do when protecting your rights limits my freedom?
We all love to yatter on about freedom. America is the self-proclaimed “land of the free”. Every day we read bumper stickers proclaiming that “freedom isn’t free”. We admire the heck out of Patrick Henry and his “give me liberty, or give me death” proclamation. Lovers of freedom rejoiced when the Berlin Wall came down, and when the Soviet Union broke up, and when Black South Africans went to the polls.
But we’re also big on rights – the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The right to property. The right to vote, worship, marry as our conscience dictates. And, inevitably, rights and freedoms collide.
The right of the historically dispossessed to own land, versus a landowner’s right to keep what they and/or their parents have worked hard to acquire and improve. An unborn child’s right to live versus a woman’s right to evict an unwanted fetus from her body. An employee’s right to choose what services they receive through their healthcare plan, versus a business owner’s right to decide what employee benefits they will offer. A believer’s right to worship who and where and how they please, versus a citizen’s right to limit what may be done on property paid for by taxes. A cartoonist’s right to be an asshole, versus a fundamentalist’s right to defend what they consider holy.
Do some of these choices seem obvious to you? Probably – but that’s not the point. My question is, what core values define how you will choose one right or freedom over another? If, in order to be true to your core values, you have to give up one of your rights or freedoms to protect someone else’s rights or freedoms, will you do it? Have you ever sat down and thought seriously about your core values, defined them, defended them, followed them to the furthest extreme that your imagination will take you?
Have you discovered that every moral argument leads down a rabbit hole to a place where you must practice believing “as many as six impossible things before breakfast”?
It seems to me that we are too often and too easily satisfied to react to individual situations as led by our preferred media, politician or celebrity. We’re lazy. We bypass serious discussion about the morality of certain choices in favor of an eye-roll and a smh*. The message we receive, and that we pass on to the world, is “Come on, it’s obvious – and if you don’t see it the way I do you’re stupid / bad / part of the problem.”
This troubles me because every day, as we decide what we think about events and trends and the choices made by our elected leaders,we’re making decisions that have complex, far-reaching implications and feature countless shades of grey. And this is potentially a dangerous way to live. When we go with glib groupthink, when we allow our chosen tribe to define what we do and don’t believe, we become vulnerable. Most of us just want to get on with our lives as best we can, but there are individuals out there, powerful, savvy individuals, who really, really want to tell us what to do. And when we surrender our responsibility to think seriously about our moral values and let those values guide our decisions and opinions, we become sheep … and then we are powerless to choose whether we’re guarded by dogs under the control of a benevolent shepherd, or harried by wolves.
I don’t care whether it’s a politician, a self-made billionaire, a televangelist, a scientific genius or a really hot sex symbol – I don’t want someone else doing my thinking for me. I’m also not terribly interested in doing your thinking for you. I really don’t care if you don’t share my core values … but I care passionately that you should have them, and that you should know what they are.
So let’s talk. What do you think is more important – freedom or rights? Are you willing to sacrifice any of your rights or freedoms so that others can enjoy different rights and freedoms? What do you think society should do about people who don’t share your core values about rights and freedoms? Do you think decisions based on core values are more likely to ensure, over time, that all is right with the world?
- It’s okay if you didn’t understand “smh”. It stands for “shaking my head”. (This note is for my mother, but I should mention that I had to google it too after seeing it 157 times and not being able to guess.)
22 thoughts on “When rights and freedom collide”
” I really don’t care if you don’t share my core values … but I care passionately that you should have them, and that you should know what they are.”
This is the crux of the matter, I think. I regularly had discussions about this with my kids in English class while reading Orwell’s Animal Farm, especially in election years as at least half of my seniors were usually already eligible to vote. I liked to tell them to never vote for a party because of who the party is (very relevant in SA in the context of the struggle history), but because they agree with with the party’s policies and actions. Vote for the ANC, I used to tell them, by all means do, but do so because you agree with what they stand for, not just because they’re the ANC. A few seemed to get it, but most didn’t even know what different parties’ policies and actions were, never mind whether they agreed with it.
Having an opinion, having core values, necessitates making a choice, and that requires conscious thought, research even, and taking responsibility and that’s just too much of an effort for many people. It’s so much easier to simply accept what the politicians, or the church, or the media tells us. If you follow the masses you never have to defend yourself and your values against them.
I had a very disturbing conversation about a year ago with a young woman who used to be one of my pupils. This was before Malema was kicked out of the ANC Youth League. She informed me that she didn’t care if Juju was corrupt, she didn’t care what he had or hadn’t done – he was her leader and she was going to follow him, no matter what. She’s a bright, passionate, strong-willed young woman … I was heartsick to hear it!
I had a kid in my class my last year at the school who was a staunch Zuma supporter. He was brilliant. In fact, I’d go so far as to say he has the makings of a future president in him. But whenever a discussion would turn to one of Zuma’s various scandals (as they inevitably did while discussing Napoleon and Squealer) he’d just roll his eyes and chuckle and make it clear he did not agree with us one bit. I could never get how someone could be so wilfully ignorant of so blatant a fact. It’s like denying gravity.
I’m not going to get into the many intelligent and educated people who support Malema’s party…
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You know, fine – support Zuma. Think he’s a great president with an understanding of the people. Think whatever you want. But what makes me crazy is when the extent of a person’s argument is an eye-roll and a superior chuckle. Come on … You think he’s a great man? GIVE ME DATA. Refute the accusations, or give a meaningful defense! I have no patience with willful stupidity – especially on the part of intelligent people.
Agreed. If you can’t defend why you support a particular person or organisation it is nothing more than loyalty, and while loyalty is mostly a virtue and one I greatly admire at that, misplaced and unthinking loyalty is not.
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If we are spinning on a ball in the Void, without ultimate reason, then what does it matter what I do, except to the vestiges of my conscience.
Then, attachment to a group and to its group-think will likely he more important to me than the truth, because without the group I am in danger of losing identity.
And if I am prepared to stand alone and stand for principle, then what principle shall it be in this world?
As Hillel said, ‘Do not do unto others as you would not have them do to you. All the rest is commentary.’
By ‘commentary’ is meant that everything can be hammered out from that one principle.
Hi, David – thanks for stopping by, and for an interesting response. So … let’s assume, for the sake of discussion, that we are indeed “spinning… without ultimate reason”. You seem to say on the one hand that only your own conscience gives meaning to what you do. Then you seem to contradict yourself, because you say that the group is what gives meaning (identity), which would make the opinions of the group more important than your own conscience-driven opinions.
I can give only a most simplistic response to this – and I suspect any individual’s response would be as much a factor of their personality and values as anything else. I think that if a person’s sense of identity, and hence their ability to decide what they value (in other words, their ability to define right and wrong), is merely a reflection of the group, then that is a sad thing indeed. It’s true that our group is important to us; very few humans can live sanely or happily in isolation. But I contend that an adult’s first responsibility is to define what they believe in terms of their core values, and then they should seek the group that will honor those values. This is of course a lifelong process; we define our values in response to what we learn from our group, and we can move from group to group as we learn and change. But personal moral responsibility must come first. (Of course it doesn’t – it seems to me most people aren’t too keen on becoming fully adult. But can we agree that this should be the goal?)
You then move on to the Golden Rule – although I prefer the Apostle Matthew’s version, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” But it seems to me that, however you phrase it, that’s a good place to start in developing what you call a principle. As a believer, my personal core value may be defined as, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
Thank you again for participating. I’d love to hear more of what you think… 🙂
Thanks for taking the conversation in such an interesting direction.
Questions about rights and freedoms seemed a lot simpler to me when I was young, and I was a lot more willing to let myself get swept forward in the wake of someone else’s thinking. These days, I hope to find some hope in the recognition that the questions are complicated, and that no solution is likely to be perfect.
Hey, Ellen – yes, it is interesting to discuss these weighty philosophies, isn’t it? I only wish I were better equipped to do so! And I agree, it seemed much simpler back in the day – although even as a teenager I tended to make myself unpopular by constantly saying, “Yes, but…” and tossing another turd into the punch bowl. It’s not that I get such a kick out of arguing, you understand; I just cannot understand how people can be satisfied to believe without thinking. People who draw conclusions about guilt or innocence based on what they read in the media and receive on Twitter. I wish they would recognize just how complicated it really is!
Thanks again for stopping by and engaging, and especially for inviting your followers to check in!
I’m so glad you have started this discussion.
I am of the firm conviction that no rights come free and without any responsibilities.
I fondly remember Proffessor Victor Frankl as he concluded a brilliant lecture on this theme, saying something like this: ‘When the US became a nation and won their freedom, France retained the services of a renowned sculptor and commissioned him to create what we know as the Statue of Liberty. Now, in today’s world I propose that the civilized countries of the world retain the services of a capable sculptor to creat a statue that should be called “The Staue of Responsibility”. And I propose that it is erected on the top of Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa, for the whole of Africa, and the world to see.’
Hey, Deej – so good to hear from you; thanks for stopping by! Yes, responsibilities – and that’s a whole other discussion, isn’t it? I think the biggest discomfort I have with any discussion about “rights” is how they tend to be perceived as operating in a vacuum. “I have a right to be heard.” Really? Certainly if you wish to speak I won’t stop you, but if I don’t like what you’re saying I will exercise my right to walk away.
I had kids at the school in Sekhukhune who would argue vehemently that they had a right to chew gum in class because “It is my culture”. Needless to say, they still had to spit it out into my cupped hand, because I wouldn’t recognize the “right” when they wouldn’t take responsibility for keeping the underside of desks and the heels of my shoes gum-free.
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This question is well put. Personally I believe that everyone should have basic rights to do as he or she wishes, as long as those rights are not forced onto any other person.
Thanks for stopping by, and for commenting! And yes, essentially I agree with you – but I think there are times when rights do conflict despite our best intentions. For instance, should I have a right to choose to end my life if I want to? Suicide is against the law pretty much everywhere, as far as I know. In Oregon it’s permitted if you’re terminally ill and suffering, but much paperwork is required. But what right does anyone have to tell me I can’t put an end to my own personal existence if I want to?
Taking it a step further … if you agree that, at least under certain circumstances, I should have the right to end my life, what if I need help doing so? At present the law states that if someone helps another person commit suicide, they’re guilty of murder, or at least manslaughter.
This is just one example of how complex this discussion is. That’s why I think it’s so enormously important to start with defining and understanding your core values … and it seems to me that, essentially, doing so boils down to deciding what is more important to you: Individual freedom, or human rights?
I really appreciate your comment and hope you’ll be interested in responding further!
Gradmama2011 wrote: “This question is well put. Personally I believe that everyone should have basic rights to do as he or she wishes, as long as those rights are not forced onto any other person.”
My, simple, response is Hear-Hear! I find the ‘Nanny-State’ advocated by so-called Progressive Liberals to be the worst sort of intrusion into my life and liberties.
And… now I will shut up.
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Regarding secession in the US, we settled this question about a hundred and fifty years and 600,000 lives ago: the answer is No.
Sure, I get that you think so. But apparently (and I have not bothered to research this subject in depth), quite a few Texans disagree. So on what basis do you deny them the right to be free of a US that is very different from the way it was 150 years ago? (Please note that my question isn’t really about secession – it’s about what underpins your understanding of rights and freedoms.)
Also, thanks for stopping by!
Also, thanks for the follow! Really very chuffed to have you here!
This is a question that always troubled me and arose once again with all this Charlie happenings. I was neither in favour of one part or the other, because I believe one’s freedom ends when the other’s freedom begins (but where is that line, really?). And when I say Charlie, I’m commenting all the rights versus moral values dilemma.
Rights are a human creation and morals are subjective. So, in the end, both will have flaws. There will never be a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ decision, no matter the case. As there will always be many versions and many perspectives/feelings towards it. What may be right to someone, can be wrong to the other party. There’s no justice. And no one, ever, will feel it was the perfect call for everyone involved. At least for someone truly unbiased. Also, no one has all the facts in their hands, no matter how extensive and detailed is a research. And if we rely only on the cold facts, we’re only taking into account a small part of what happened.
Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting! And … I agree with you that anything human is inherently flawed. But I also believe, very strongly, that knowing a system is flawed is no excuse for not trying to make it the best we can.
“Rights are a human creation and morals are subjective.” Yes, very true. But to my mind, whereas rights automatically involve conflict – your rights versus mine – moral choices (which drive core values) have much more to do with identifying a benchmark and then seeking to reach it. As a Christ follower, my moral benchmark is “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Obviously I think the world would be perfect if everyone adopted the same benchmark – if I didn’t think it was the best benchmark, I’d have to look for a better one. But I recognize that not everyone is going to accept my benchmark. And there are going to be some who adopt a completely different benchmark, such as “survival of the fittest” (however they may define fitness).
It’s a really challenging discussion.- and such an important one to have, and keep having, because if we don’t think about these things, if we don’t set ourselves a standard based on what we value and think is right, it’s so easy just to become a drifter. When you let that happen, you forfeit not just the right, but the ability to make choices, and you hand over the power to make choices to people who want to decide things … and, as we have seen throughout human history, the ones who want to decide are very often the very people who should be prevented from doing so.
As for Charlie, I think what happened was absolutely wrong, and completely unsurprising. If you poke a mad dog with a stick, it will bite you. Basically, I think they committed suicide by mad dog.