Rights vs. Duties
Reclaiming Civic Balance
May 16, 2016
21 Min read time
In the age of human rights, the language of duties has withered.
Photograph: Andy Kennelly
In 1947 Julian Huxley, English evolutionary theorist and director-general of UNESCO, wrote Mohandas Gandhi to ask him to contribute an essay to a collection of philosophical reflections on human rights. Gandhi declined. “I learnt from my illiterate but wise mother,” he replied, “that all rights to be deserved and preserved came from duty well done. Thus the very right to live accrues to us only when we do the duty of citizenship of the world.”
Huxley should not have been surprised by the rejection. As far back as Hind Swaraj (1909), his masterpiece in political theory, Gandhi had bemoaned “the farce of everybody wanting and insisting on . . . rights, nobody thinking of . . . duty.” And during World War II, when another Englishman, H. G. Wells, solicited Gandhi’s support for his bill of rights defining war aims, the mahatma recommended that Wells write a cosmopolitan charter of duties instead—a statement of what citizens of the world owe to each other.
A few months after his exchange with Huxley, Gandhi was dead. Assassinated in January 1948, he did not live to see the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed by the United Nations General Assembly in December of the same year. In our age, in which human rights politics have finally come into their own, his emphasis on duties looks downright idiosyncratic.
Of course, the human rights revolution of the past few decades itself means that international law imposes a wide range of duties. Every right implies corresponding or “correlative” duties in order to see that right respected, protected, or fulfilled. And while international law has grown more successful at imposing duties on states, national schemes of rights protection go far further. It is easy to forget this important point, yet it hardly means that commitment to human rights translates into a widespread public discourse about, or political prominence of, duties.
So we are now very familiar with the claim that all humans everywhere have rights. But we are much less familiar with the notion that rights are protected by the fulfillment of duties. Thirty years ago, when the human rights movement was in its infancy, philosopher Onora O’Neill commented, “Although serious writing on human rights acknowledges that any right must entail correlative obligations, we find no Universal Declaration of Human Duties, and no international Human Obligations Movements.” This omission of duties might have grave consequences for rights protection itself. Consider that, from their president on down, few Americans seem to believe that a right to be free from torture might translate into a duty to prevent and punish torture.
Human rights wither without a language of duties.
More important, even the most generous attempts to protect the political and socioeconomic rights of individuals leave some duties of individuals to their own states and all humanity out of account, as well as some duties of states to one another. After all, not all duties that morality might impose follow from individual rights. If states have a duty to provide housing and food, do individuals have a duty to pay taxes to ensure it can do so? If inequality gallops locally and globally, is it best to frame the problem as an indirect violation of a right—there being no right to fair distribution—or as a rationale to impose on individuals, corporations, and states a duty to contribute to a just society? If the planet burns, is the remedy a personal right to a healthy environment or a collective duty to preserve the earth for future generations?
The answers to these questions are hardly obvious, but our ability to tackle them in the first place is depleted by our unbalanced understanding of moral and political discourse over time. That discourse once gave obligations their due. Unfortunately, while there has been great interest in the history of rights, no one has attempted to write the history of human duties. Even that phrase sounds strange. In particular, there is now a whole canon on the history of the internationalization of human rights since the middle of the twentieth century. But, to the best of my knowledge, there is not a single book on the history of duties, even though there clearly have been precedents, including Gandhi’s, for a theory of obligations that would accrue not just at the level of community or state but at that of the globe as a whole.
It turns out the West—and possibly the world at large—historically cultivated robust theories not only of governmental obligations toward individual rights, but also of individuals toward one another, citizens toward their governments, and rich states toward poor ones. Duties are not without their own baggage. But, compared to the well-excavated history of rights claims, the lesser-known history of duties provides a valuable starting point as we attend to urgent purposes in the world today.
• • •
For millennia, duties—or responsibilities, as we are more apt to call them now—were the main commitment of religious ethics and thus the centerpiece of the history of ethical culture. “Judaism knows not rights but duties,” founder of human rights law Louis Henkin explained, “and at bottom, all duties are to God. (If every duty has a correlative right, the right must be said to be in God!)” And in spite of its critique of Jewish “legalism,” Christianity, like Islam, similarly holds that the substance of moral teachings is some set of divinely decreed obligations, whether to God or to fellow human beings.
Just as important, duties have long been the central framework for Western ethical theory, in large part thanks to Cicero’s textbook on practical ethics—De Officiis, routinely translated as On Duties—which, for hundreds of years, introduced the subject to young men. Enlightenment thinker Immanuel Kant provided a revolutionary foundation for morality: the freedom of people to choose their own ends. But when he lectured on practical ethics, his teaching took a familiar form, expounding a catalogue of duties. Many everyday bodies of law, such as tort law for the redress of private wrongs, have never dispensed with this premodern emphasis on duties.
The rise of the history of human rights in our time has sometimes distorted our perception of these antediluvian realities. Historians searching for early traces of the notion of rights in medieval, Reformation, or Enlightenment Christianity are at risk of sidelining these traditions’ overwhelming emphasis on duties. The same observation applies to early modern ideas of natural law, which have long been credited as the basis of later natural rights. “The development of the notion of natural right was not central to early modern natural law,” historian Knud Haakonssen argues. Instead, rights thinking “crops up as little more than floating islands” in the moral sea of duties. In the 1670s, before there were declarations of the rights of man and citizen, German moralist Samuel Pufendorf summed up the dominant focus of his era’s political and legal thought in the title of his treatise On the Duty of Man and Citizen.
In response to the hegemony of ethical schools, religious traditions, and political authorities emphasizing obligations within stark hierarchies, a few Enlightenment political thinkers asserted the supremacy of rights. The goal of this shift toward rights was escape from the confinement of duty, and that was no doubt a good thing. Liberal insistence on freedom from God’s enforcers, tradition’s weight, and the state’s prerogatives was a significant advance in history. The question was, after individual freedoms had been proclaimed and won, what would happen to the earlier public emphasis on duties? Would it simply disappear?
• • •
Appeals to rights famously justified Atlantic revolutions against political oppression. Those revolutions were subsequently domesticated through an appeal to duties. The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1789, and its even more liberal update of 1793, were answered by the conservative 1795 Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man and Citizen. “The maintenance of society requires that those who compose it should both know and fulfill their duties,” the document declared.
Discussion of duties did not persist, however, simply to contain the demand for rights. Instead, most nineteenth-century liberals assigned importance to duties themselves for two main reasons. First, they nestled their liberal political commitments within historical and sociological frameworks that made individual freedom a collective achievement that depended on ongoing collective commitments and necessarily common action. If liberals defended rights, it was not because they believed that individuals enjoyed perfect freedom in a mythical state of nature. Instead, rights, if plausible at all, were social entities—like everything else. The difference between good and bad states was not the distinction between those that respected the pre-political rights of the state of nature and those that did not. Rather, it was the difference between states that properly balanced social freedom with other collective purposes and those that did not.
Second, many liberals were concerned that when the state or globe was viewed as the forum for the protection of individual freedom alone, the result would be a destructive libertarianism that would sweep aside values other than individual liberty, including equality and fraternity. So their motivation to maintain the historic emphasis on duties in a liberal age was powerful. Despots had always droned on about the duties of subjects to the state. But even as libertarianism rose, some nineteenth-century liberals elaborated the older republican idea that citizenship in a community of free people affords privileges but also incurs responsibilities.
Thomas Paine, who fanned the flames of the American Revolution and then participated in the French, offered a famous defense of The Rights of Man (1791). Nineteenth-century liberal and Italian patriot Giuseppe Mazzini, one of the most famous men of his age, titled his central volume of moral and political theory The Duties of Man (1860). For a long time, Mazzini’s work was more emblematic of the tasks of social thought than was Paine’s because Mazzini reclaimed duties for liberals.
Photograph of Giuseppe Mazzini: Domenico Lama (1823–1890); public domain
Mazzini was not a great philosopher, but his global influence was such that his ethics deserve a look. (Gandhi mentioned The Duties of Man as one of the texts that most inspired his own thought.) The priority accorded individual entitlements, Mazzini believed, risked prioritizing the hedonistic “pursuit of happiness” over other goods, neglecting both higher aims and the enacted communal fellowship necessary to achieve them.
With the theory of happiness as the primary aim of existence, we shall only produce egoistic men. We have therefore to find a principle . . . which shall guide men toward their own improvement, teach them constancy and self-sacrifice, and unite them with their fellow men . . . . And this principle is Duty.
Thus, he set himself the task of renovating the time-honored centrality of duties.
Though Mazzini is best remembered for his nationalism, he was also one of the earliest cosmopolitans, who believed in the eventual unification of humanity. What drove his activism at every scale, from his local agitation to his global vision, was his commitment to the reality of and need for social interdependence for the sake of achieving all goods. He sought a balance between individual emancipation and collective obligations.
Living as an exile in London for much of his adult life, Mazzini was aghast at the false contrast between rights and utility that he found dominating Anglophone ethics, as it still does today. He was angered by the isolating hedonism of the Enlightenment and Atlantic revolutions, and he saw Jeremy Bentham’s principle of utility as no real alternative. For Mazzini viewed utilitarianism as itself a mode of individual rights, disavowing their formalism and substituting their foundations while centering ethics on the same atomized self. “I know that the theory of rights does not find favour with Bentham by name,” Mazzini allowed, in one of his more penetrating comments. “But for all who understand the spirit and not the mere dead letter of Bentham, this is evidently only a quarrel with the word.” For this reason, Mazzini contended, utilitarianism had merely saved human rights from their nonsensical illusions rather than embedding them in a doctrine that would encourage social interdependence: “Bentham’s writings recognize no idea superior to the individual, no collective starting-point, no providential education of the human race.”
Because interdependence, for Mazzini, was the necessary precursor to social improvement, his doctrine of duties was exceptionally broad—irreducible, especially, to the state’s duties to respect the rights of its citizens. Rather, duties to one another and to all humanity put the relationship between individual rights and the state in its broader setting. “Workingmen, brothers—understand me well. When I say that the consciousness of your rights will never suffice to produce an important and lasting progress, I do not ask you to renounce those rights,” Mazzini assured his reader.
I merely say that such rights can only exist as a consequence of duties fulfilled, and that we must begin with the latter in order to achieve the former. . . . Hence, when you hear those who preach the necessity of a social transformation declare that they can accomplish it by invoking only your rights, be grateful to them for their good intentions, but distrustful of the outcome.
Mazzini found in duties the critical tool to immunize the individual liberty consecrated by rights theory from the libertarian heresy that he found so destructive. “The sacred idea of Liberty has recently been perverted by some deeply flawed doctrines,” he noted.
Some have reduced it to a narrow and immoral egoism, making the self everything, and declaring the aim of all social organization to be the satisfaction of personal desires. Others have declared that all government and all authority is a necessary evil [or] that government has no other mission than that of preventing one individual from harming another. Reject these false doctrines, my brothers! . . . If you were to understand liberty according to these flawed doctrines, you would deserve to lose it. . . . Your liberty will be sacred so long as it is guided by an idea of duty, of faith in common perfectibility.
Mazzini may have been unique in his sheer emphasis on the programmatic significance of duties. He was certainly more florid, as well as less philosophically rigorous, than many of his nineteenth-century contemporaries, even if he was both more globally minded and, for a long time, more globally influential. Yet he captured some commitments that other liberals shared. After its early naturalistic phase, liberalism shared with socialism a commitment to the collective foundations of the good life, in which individual liberty fit alongside universal emancipation and a range of other goods.
Perhaps most important, liberals evoked the complex interdependence of human beings in a way that rights talk risks obscuring, especially given its frequent allegiance to the defense of property. Admittedly, sometimes even progressive theorists took this argument too far, as the brilliant and neglected French legal theorist Léon Duguit did when, in the name of solidarity and social interdependence, he revived Auguste Comte’s claim that “there is only one right, and that is to do our duty.” Whatever the overstatement, the question such traditions leave behind is whether it is correct in our own day to renovate rather than reject an emphasis on duties, and to do so on the scale of global interdependence.
• • •
Though only their powerful traditions of rights and utility are familiar today, many Anglo-American liberals agreed with their Continental European colleagues about the need to emphasize a theory and practice of duties. Surely the best example is T. H. Green, the Oxford moralist who fused Evangelical religion, liberal politics, and Hegelian metaphysics. As his biographer Melvin Richter explained, it was in some ways because Green felt he could count on secure English and Western European traditions of liberty that he could take the chance to justify a more interventionist state. Accordingly, Green named a major work Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation (1885); in it he argued that personal entitlements should receive far less rhetorical attention than state and collective ones—precisely to support policies that would augment inherited rights with needed redistribution.
Like so many others in the nineteenth century—and not only those on the far left, such as Karl Marx—Green’s point of departure was an attack on the myth that the individual existed prior to, and in the absence of, society. “The popular effect of the notion that the individual brings with him into society certain rights,” Green complained, “is seen in the inveterate irreverence of the individual towards the state [and] in the assumption that he has rights against society irrespectively of his fulfillment of any duties to society.” Green did not reject rights, but he reframed them, reaching for a theory of rights that would acknowledge individual capacities while prioritizing social cohesion and progress. This meant, above all, an insistence that duties have the same standing and importance as rights: “There cannot be innate rights in any other sense than that in which there are innate duties.” Of these, he added, “much less has been heard.” That coda is even more appropriate today, in what Henkin calls the “age of rights.”
Green, British New Liberals, and their American analogues were arguing against a libertarian presumption whereby state intrusion into the allegedly free domain of market activity was a violation of rights. These thinkers directed their fire toward the conception of rights as metaphysical entities; instead, rights were social goods whose justification ultimately lay in collective purposes. Later, in the twentieth century, American legal realists such as Robert Hale and Karl Llewellyn pursued a similar deconstruction of rights. Though, in theory, the anti-metaphysical critique applied equally to duties, Green, his contemporaries, and their successors did not target duties for criticism, perhaps because they wanted in the first place to make duties plausible in an age in which liberty is used to justify market hierarchy and depredation. For such figures, the argument was thus twofold. First, if people have rights based on their innate features, they have innate duties too. Second, the collective setting of individual freedom makes the harmony of social and individual purposes a policy challenge. The presence of both purposes should not be an occasion for asserting the supremacy of individual freedom over the collective good and playing the trump card of rights to minimize the state.
The need to guard against destructive ideas of duty is a poor excuse for ignoring beneficial ones.
Green’s thought made possible the kind of liberalism on which the twentieth-century welfare state was based. The welfare state was popularly justified not in terms of rights—including economic rights—but individual and collective duties. The 1940s, when the United Nations’ Universal Declaration appeared, may in fact have been the high point for duties. There was Simone Weil’s “Declaration of Duties toward Mankind,” written in 1943 in London not long before her death by self-starvation. It is hazy but interesting, drawing on substantial talk within the French Resistance about the need for a fresh start for the sake of solidarity. And in 1948, a collection of mostly American intellectuals, meeting in Chicago after the war to draft a world constitution, began with a “Declaration of Duties and Rights,” for the sake not just of “physical welfare” but also of “spiritual excellence.” A late article of the Universal Declaration alludes to the importance of duties: “Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.” Latin Americans went further, entitling their regional charter, finalized in spring 1948, “The American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man.”
Today, however, liberal emphasis on duties is a distant memory at every scale. Political theory lost track of the concept in the second half of the twentieth century. Even communitarianism, with its concern for interdependence, does not carry the mantle; duty-oriented liberals understood social interdependence as the setting for personal freedoms, not a substitute for them. And these liberal theorists sometimes demanded responsibility not in local settings alone—as communitarians do—but at a global scale. In the public sphere, duties are similarly absent. Neither liberals in their domestic projects, nor the Universal Declaration and subsequent international movements, have successfully offered powerful public visions of social interdependence, collective agency, or planetary responsibility.
• • •
Our age of rights, lacking a public language of duties, is a historical outlier. The consequences are significant. Human rights themselves wither when their advocates fail to cross the border into the language of duty; insofar as compliance with norms on paper is sought, the bearers of duties have to be identified and compelled to assume their burden. But duties may have an even larger role to play than simply completing the circuit of rights fulfillment. Though we face environmental catastrophe and the inequities of neoliberalism, few think to pick up the traces of Mazzini’s and Gandhi’s cosmopolitan responsibility, which might help to confront these global-scale menaces.
As Anne Peters has argued, international law in particular beckons for duties corresponding to the human rights established by the last generation’s work. Specifically, one might call for cosmopolitan responsibilities for the sake of the many to balance the transnational commercial freedoms that currently redound to the benefit of a few. Another forgotten tradition asserts cosmopolitan duties of states quite different from the now-familiar demand to save strangers from atrocities, as expressed by the famous doctrine of the “responsibility to protect.” This is the proposition that rich states owe duties to the world’s poor and the global commons. Indeed, progressive international lawyers have made repeated attempts to assert not rights of individuals but duties of states—including to one another in view of their unequal wealth and power. The most notable example is the Charter of the Economic Rights and Duties of States (1974), propounded in close connection with the global South’s proposed New International Economic Order.
Of course, it would be a grievous mistake to insist, as both Mazzini and Gandhi apparently did, that enjoyment of rights ought to depend on assumption of duties first. And it is undeniable that the rhetoric of duties has often been deployed euphemistically by those whose true purpose is a return to tradition won by limiting the rights of others. The misbegotten “Asian values” debate of the 1990s, which saw Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and others contend that Western norms ran afoul of local visions, promoted duties as a surreptitious means of scanting rights. In 2007 British Labour Party Prime Minister Gordon Brown began calling for a new bill of rights and duties, which has escalated into full-scale resistance to human rights under his conservative successors. Claiming to complement rights with necessary “responsibilities,” Tories have proposed withdrawal from the country’s Human Rights Act amid anger at the notion that this “charter for terrorists” provides excessive protection for suspects. Most perniciously, when the language of duties has been revived, it has often been for the sake of libertarian ends, notably in debates over state provision—for example, in the longstanding critique of welfare, which holds that individuals are duty bound to cultivate personal virtue and take responsibility for their lives rather than depend selfishly on the “nanny state” to minister to their needs.
But it ought to be clear that the need to guard against destructive ideas of duty is a poor excuse for ignoring beneficial liberal ones. Indeed, rejecting duty entirely means rejecting a public vocabulary that might save a range of values from continuing neglect, whether socioeconomic equality, global justice, or environmental welfare.
Further, duties could matter precisely because many of our most intractable problems are global. In his letter to Huxley, Gandhi’s call to prioritize duties reflected a self-conscious cosmopolitanism: duties are at the core of a worthy citizenship of the world. It is highly doubtful that human rights alone will address these public dilemmas in either theory or practice. In fact, they have already failed to do so.
The anxious sense that to legitimate talk of duty is to flirt with disaster—that, all things considered, it is best to stick exclusively to the vindication of hard-won rights—is understandable but indefensible. Above all, it is critical to ensure that the human rights revolution does not turn out to be a permanent fellow-traveler of a much larger libertarian revolution: disquietingly, the two share the same fifty-year lifespan.
Recent developments in human rights themselves suggest a parting of the ways. There is a growing realization among activists that talking the talk of other people’s rights may lead inexorably to experiences of solidarity that, in turn, affect how claims are made. A self-styled human-obligations movement, of the kind that O’Neill called for long ago, would not only better capture some aspects of existing activism. It also would help dispel worries about its libertarian associations, particularly since northern activists have a continuing penchant for demoting economic and social rights and distributive justice in general in favor of classic concerns about, for example, censorship, imprisonment, and torture. Just as important, in recent years there has been a remarkable turn in northern advocacy toward building community relationships around the world before setting multifaceted agendas, rather than parachuting in for externally formulated quick fixes. For instance, the non-governmental organization Participation and the Practice of Rights wants to teach activists to help existing grassroots forces in the global South to help themselves.
From a different angle, a sense of duty is also implied by the push for “corporate social responsibility.” Some worry that these efforts are oversold, window-dressing for profit won at the expense of other rights violations by poorly regulated companies. Such anxieties speak to the need for duties that go beyond insurance against the worst abuses; they must serve the pursuit of economic justice, not simply help businesses to advertise their ethical propriety.
There are good reasons, then, to ask what a history of human duties would look like, so we can decide whether and how to reestablish duties now. There will always be debate both about the source and substance of such duties. But this is no more true of duties than it is of the rights framework now impressively entrenched—along with the historical work that serves to vindicate it. As with rights, so with duties: reclaiming the history of duties is a first step toward the thinking and practice that might justifiably lead to reclaiming duties themselves.
May 16, 2016
21 Min read time