My title is a question I sometimes ask activists who get a little too demanding of me. They want the right for this or that thing- which is really unimportant, everyone, it seems wants something, and they want it now. I save my question for the more disagreeable sort, the kind that won't let one simply walk away, as though the fact that they wish to speak means that everyone else must listen. But sooner or later, they must draw a breath, and then it is time to pounce.
"You want this right, do you? And you're sure? You've thought this through? Very well then, I have only one question for you:
What is a 'right'?"
They often stare at me blankly, as though they had never heard such a stupid question. Doesn't everyone know what a right is? Or perhaps, and I suspect this too is true, they have never given the matter a moment's thought.
Or sometimes they answer to the effect that a right is the ability to do something, and no one may tell you otherwise. That would be the most common answer these days, but I still don't think they've given it a moments thought. But, answer or no, I have never had cause to believe they have taken any real time consider the meaning of their most fundamental term.
I have pondered the matter occasionally, and my ideas are a little different from theirs, for when I look to the past to see what the concept of right meant back when the concept of rights was being formulates, I see that rights often comes hand in hand with duties. The two were not inimical to each other then, as they are now, but rather two sides of the same coin. The right to do something also carries with it the duty to do it well. The right to free speech, for instance, carries with it the responsibility to speak truth. We are not permitted to liable nor slander, nor lie under oath, nor may we yell 'Fire!' in a theatre where there is no fire. Informally, we may tell a lie, but a known liar is never again trusted. A right is a kind of power, and, as Spider-man is fond of telling us, with great power comes great responsibility.
These people I meet so often would have me believe that without a full and complete right, they are unfree, a veritable slave in chains. But this merely shows their folly. The opposite of right is licence, or the capacity to act without the constraints of duty or obligation. The true opposite of right, then, is exactly what they mean when they say 'right'.
To be able to act without consequence is the province of a child, and a spoiled one at that. They seem to desire that there be no consequences for their choices, no consequences for their actions. They seem to desire to live a life of no consequence. This is not freedom, for a free man knows his freedom was not free, and, being the arbiter of his destiny, he bears its burden, and he must bear the cost of his mistakes. But these do not seek responsibility: that they would place on another. The ultimate freedom they desire is freedom from responsibility. But this is the freedom of a master over a slave; it is not a freedom of a rule of law, but of the domination of Thrasymachus: the strong will do as they will, and the weak will accept what they must. I will do what I want. You will pay the price.
With responsibility it is possible to have civilization. Without it, there is only the barbarism of anarchy, a Hobbesian war of every man against every man, where life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. Too many rights, as these people seem to conceive them, and we shall all be ruined.