02 September 2010

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Rights and obligations + news

Dear Friends,
Last Sunday we decided that for the time being we continue meeting at
7pm because it is still very hot outside.
In the meantime this Sunday we are discussing: rights and obligations. A
rather interesting topic in philosophy, but also a topic that in the
real world leaves a lot to be desired.
In the meantime Maria has sent me details of this event:
Humanización en la atención sanitaria y Calidad de Vida en el siglo XXI
Información e Inscripciones
Secretaría de la Fundación PSIME. Psicología y Medicina, Salud Holística
Telf.-Fax: 91 5431718 E-mail: info@psime.org WWW.psime.org
---- I have also put a copy on Google Documents of the file Maria sent
me, the link is:

Take care and see you Sunday


+++++++++MEETING DETAILS+++++++++
SUNDAY 6.00pm – 8.30pm at Molly Malone's Pub, probably downstairs----
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tel 606081813
-metro: Bilbao : buses: 21, 149, 147
Tertulia with Ignacio and friends: Every Thursday, from 19:30 to 21h, at
Moore's Irish Pub, c/ Barceló 1 (metro Tribunal).
Rights and obligations

The theme of rights and obligations is not new in philosophy. And to
demonstrate that rights and obligation are fundamental to human beings
even other disciplines are heavily involved in the subject. Politics and
the law are the obvious two major disciplines that seem to have
controlling power on rights and obligations.
So what can we add to the debate that has not been said already? In the
absence of doing an in depth survey of the matter we cannot really
answer that question. However, we still have one characteristic that
qualifies us to consider the issue of rights and obligations. And that
characteristic is that rights and obligations are things that affect us
directly. We are all, in other words, practitioners of rights and
Moreover, many works have been written over the centuries that list
rights and obligations, or discuss the nature and scope of rights and
obligations. Indeed one of the first supposedly written charters of
obligations was the ten commandments.
From our perspective as users of rights and obligations we can
interpret rights and obligations as things we are allowed to do or have
and things we are not allowed to do or have. This is quite a reasonable
interpretation to make, after all human being are dynamic biological
system constrained by various natural factors: cold, hot, wet, dry,
high, deep etc etc
However, it does not make sense to speak of rights in nature, since
nature functions on a simpler principle: if you can do it nothing is
going to stop you. It is not that nature is brutal, but rather nature is
indifferent. Of course, to prescribe nature with such human properties
as brutality and indifference is itself meaningless. But we need this
language because we are in general very ignorant about how nature
functions and secondly we are only privileged to understand our world
using our epistemological means and tools to do that.
Now if we are sometimes ignorant about how nature works, we might easily
come to the conclusion that we are also quite sloppy about how we use
our language or how we employ our epistemic tools. Take Article 3 of the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, "Everyone has the right to life,
liberty and security of person."
What does "Everyone has the right to life" mean? Does it mean that
everyone has a right to be born, does it mean that everyone has a right
to be conceived, does it mean that anyone who has a life cannot die,
nice to have in real life?
But of course we have no problem reaching a reasonable meaning of a
right to life, mainly because we have a older, much, much older version
of this right from the ten commandments, Thou shall not murder/kill (use
your own version).
My point is that talking about rights and obligations can easily be a
slippery subject, specifically, what do we mean by all these declared
rights. And my second point is this, am I justified in believing that we
basically interpret rights and obligations in terms of what we are
allowed to do or have and things we are not allowed to do or have? After
all, even we are human beings and liable to misinterpret concept such as
I don't think we are misguided in believing that rights and obligations
are based on what we are allowed to do or not do. However, rights are
not in my opinion based on what is or is not permissible but rather on
what, indeed makes us human beings.
The idea that rights and obligations are based on permission can lead to
a few issues. Firstly, this mentality assumes that there is something or
someone other than human beings who can identify what rights and
obligations human beings have to follow. And more seriously, those who
assume to have the authority to establish rights and obligations do not
seem, themselves, to have any responsibility for the charters they issue
for human beings. Take the ten commandments, there is nothing in the ten
commandments that says you will be rewarded in some way or other if you
follow the commandments.
Nor do they say that if someone breaks one of the commandments the
victim will be compensated in one way or other. For example, one of the
commandments says thou shall not kill/murder. There is nothing in the
commandments themselves that say if you do you'll go to hell. But the
commandments also do not say what happened to the murdered person, do
murdered people go to heaven?
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, itself follows this logic.
There are twenty nine articles that specify all sorts of rights and the
30th even says that no state can take away or amend these rights. All
well and good, what the charter does not say is that the UN will come to
the help of anyone who, for example, has been falsely arrested. It does
not even say what compensation someone must receive if they had a
particular right trampled upon.
The reality is that we think of rights and obligations in terms of
permission because human beings still operate the model of governance as
established by nature. If you remember I said that nature has only one
rule, if you can do it nothing is going to stop you. This is quite a
powerful model because it give us 100% freedom and nil obligations. The
major flaw of this model is that those who cannot have no alternative.
And this is how we govern ourselves even today, if we can we do, if we
cannot we don't. Of course, we have evolved an elaborate language and
restraints to dilute the impression we have of reality. Usually we can
these, democracy, constitutions, lawsuits and so on. And the most
powerful device we have developed to camouflage the real state of
affairs about rights is ignorance. Ignorance, that is, about our rights
and especially keeping others in ignorance about their rights.
This top down model of rights and obligations, in my opinion, introduces
a number of unintended consequences. The first of these consequences, as
I have already mentioned, is that they do not have a mechanism to
protect our rights, nor do they specify what automatic remedies victims
have should their rights be contravened. And incidentally, their are no
mechanisms that compel us to fulfil our obligations.
Some might argue that we have legal systems to deal with these
consequences. Maybe, but legal systems tend to be too little too late
type of solutions; if you can afford a lawyer. But my point is that the
rights and obligations themselves do not specify the mechanism on how to
apply these rights and obligations. As far as we know Moses was only
given the ten commandments and the guidelines on how to apply them.
Another group of unintended consequences is that it is very easy to
equate what we want with what we think is our right. Since in our
present day model, rights are things we are allowed to have or do, it
would quite reasonable to imagine that we have a right to do what we
want to do. After all, if we have a right to do something then it is
quite reasonable to assume that we might also want to do or have what is
granted under a right.
I was recently watching a documentary on the boarder controls in
Australia. One person assumed that although he declared that he had with
him food items, he believed that he could also bring in a food item that
had seeds in it. Although boarder control personnel did not have a
problem with allowing in declared food, this person could not understand
why he was not allowed to bring in the seeds. From the authorities point
of view seeds brought into the country might have diseases that will be
dangerous to the local flora. From the traveller's point of view he was
bring in food.
In other words, the traveller believed that by prohibiting him from
importing these seeds his right to bring in food was being violated.
Either intentionally or not this person did not believe that he had the
obligation not to risk harming the environment.
Another unintended consequence is that we believe that just because we
have a right to do something must avail ourselves of that right. In and
of itself there is noting wrong with this. Indeed not using our rights
might give the impression that we are not interested in our rights.
However, some rights might have consequences on other rights and
obligations. Take for example the right of having a family, including
children, not only does this imply an obligation to look after our
children, but also limits the scope of our rights on the freedom of
The point about rights is that it is not enough to exercise our rights,
but that we have to consider carefully how we go about exercising our
rights. At face value, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a
huge advancement on say the ten commandments. At least the declaration
identifies that human beings "are endowed with reason" and that they
"should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood." (Article 1)
Faulty as the declaration might be, we at least have "official"
recognition of the scope of human beings. Reason and cooperation are
indeed what distinguishes us as human beings. Of course, there is
nothing new about cooperation in nature, but reason at least is
something that we ought to excel in. We should use reason not only to
exercise our rights but precisely to find mechanisms that guarantees
that we have access to our rights. And moreover, our obligations are
obligations that benefit the brotherhood.
It has been quite a few thousand years since Moses was made to re-write
the charter of obligations, and fifty two years since the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights was written. I wonder when the mechanism
will be in place to implement all these charters and declarations.

Take care

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Rights and
obligations + news

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