A powerful and profound essay on the relationship of rights and duties from Dr Warren.
From Essays in Idleness
By David Warren
Let us assume, for the sake of having an argument, the reverse of the contemporary assumption that a (post-birthday) human has rights. Let us rather assume that he has duties. These might not be specified by law; whenever possible they should not be. Yet society at large, in all of its many dimensions, should be at liberty not only to inculcate those duties, but to enforce them through punishments such as ostracism and shame; to make those who neglect their duties feel the lash of criticism.
Of course, people would still have rights (unspecified in law, whenever possible); but the rights would correspond to their duties. For instance, a policeman has the right to arrest, unobstructed, an observed wrongdoer. A fireman has the right to pump water through the window of a house that is visibly on fire. A baker has the right to bake cakes, and sell them to whomever he pleases. These rights were long ago established and for the most part require (or once required) little thought to sort through. A property owner has the right to manage his own property, in ways that do not spoil the surroundings. This includes the right to defend against trespassers, poachers, burglars, and so forth.
But these rights were traditionally built upon duties. Policemen must uphold the law, which means obeying laws themselves. Or rather, in the mediaeval teaching of the old Scottish jurisprudes, they must not break themselves upon the law. Firemen must put out fires, and perhaps survey fire hazards in their spare time, advising the extremely ignorant of what they might be. Bakers must bake for a living, which entails getting up early in the morning, so they may sell their goods fresh. Dairy farmers likewise must rise to the task of milking their cows, sheep, goats, &c. (The animals themselves will be pleased to enforce this.) Land owners must pay (moderate) taxes, and concede ancient rights of way, as they still do in various backward places.
We could get lost in detail. That is not my intention.
Everyone has duties, including in each case the duty not to interfere in the work of another who is discharging hisduties. Only in extremes are statute laws necessary, for given a little time and sanity, good and useful customs (re-)emerge. It is everyone’s duty to observe these customs, once they have established themselves, and as the Church has long taught, it is our charitable duty to admonish those who lose sight of them.
Such as the duty to defend oneself, one’s family and one’s property, were not formerly controversial. Today, they are confused by the interventions of what I call Twisted Nanny State, instinctively on the side of the aggressor. Example: if an armed man breaks into my house, threatening not only my widescreen TV but the health and safety of my wife and children, surely I have the right to blow him away. But this follows from my duty to do so. In the moral order which I envisage, armed criminals would seldom come to trial. Knowing this, their numbers would diminish the quicker.
Cowboy, or vigilante justice — when action is taken after the event — should be discouraged, however. That is where police and courts come in, or should. Alas, such instances of individual or mob revenge are powerfully encouraged when the “liberal” authorities become so lax or lame that the citizen is left with no other means to obtain justice. Hence the need for seriousness, all round. Hence the citizen’s duty of vigilance against politicians who multiply laws that are trivial and fatuous; his duty to prevent “progressive” ideologues from coming anywhere near power.
Respect, I note, was once conferred upon the dutiful. It was not until recently that a “theory” was hatched — a bastardization of ancient Christian teaching — that compelled us to show respect to all, and civility even to the uncivil. This was an important abridgement of our freedom: to decide, for ourselves, whom to love, admire, ignore, fear, detest, &c. It interferes with our duty to make sound judgements, thus dehumanizing us.