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Often the realities of American politics correspond very little to the theory or theories of government that we expound.  This is a topic which I plan to write a great deal about, because I feel that it is perfectly possible to come up with a political philosophy that can be directly relevant to public policy discussion.  

That political philosophy is, of course, a progressive one.  Yet, rarely do I find the progressive view of government translated into the language of political philosophy, rights and duties.  My first attempt to do so was in an article published a number of years ago in a small public policy journal, "The Current."  Please note that all statistics are from a number of years ago, so they are likely a bit different today.  I'd be happy to provide a copy with citations to anyone who wants it.  

History continually shows that the boundaries of social justice are defined by the standards of the time. If a government spends all its resources on upholding duties within its society, yet is unable to cover all theoretical duties, those not covered can be seen to represent the goals of society; progress being represented through their attainment.

On Duty

By Ben Fitzpatrick

The most important feature of political philosophy is its ability to direct attention to the disconnect in society between moral principles and actual public policy.  Rarely has a direct correlation been made between theory of government and government as it is empirically analyzed. Many of the ideals of rights and duties that form the foundation of the morality behind a particular system of government break down when taken out of the theoretical world.  This has been true of monarchies, aristocracies and democracies alike.  Yet the inability of societies to fully implement theoretical principles of government has not, and should not, stop us from both reflecting on the differences between our ideals and our reality, as well as working to bridge the gap between the two. For this reason, the concept of duty, as it relates to rights and moral principles within American society, is the topic of this essay.

Generally, within liberal political theory, all rights imply a corresponding duty.  Therefore, for example, if a nation decides to protect the right of individuals not to be harmed, it must enforce the duty of "non-maleficence."  Without the enforcement of this duty, the right cannot be held up as a moral principle of the nation. American history is riddled with cases of rights being proclaimed by the majority without enforcement of the necessary duties to protect minority groups. For example, the 14th Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees equal protection of the laws, was enacted in 1868, yet it wasn’t until 1954 that segregation was ruled unconstitutional.  For the 86 years in between, the right to equal protection under the law was proclaimed within American society, while the duty to uphold that right for all individuals was nonexistent.  It is not a coincidence that the decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which overturned segregation, is hailed as one of the nation’s finest moments.  For often the greatest achievements in American history are times when the inconsistencies between proclaimed rights and enforced duties have been recognized and remedied.  To do this, as will be argued below, represents societal progress.

The relationship between proclaimed rights and enforced duties in American society is currently deteriorating.  This is one aspect of our capitalist culture that must always be checked.  For duty is one of the rare aspects of our society that is unquantifiable.  Just as it would be impossible to determine how much personal freedom of speech is worth, it is impossible to say how much money could over-ride a duty.  This is because duties exist in a binary world; they are either fulfilled or not.  If they are not fulfilled, then a moral principle has been violated.  At all times it is imperative that our society and its institutions are led by moral principles.  The challenge is determining where our duties remain unfulfilled in society.  Once that is accomplished, we must develop laws that reflect the necessary changes and build a society where these values are both respected and carried out.

In order to determine the unfulfilled duties within American society, it is necessary to recognize the rights that are, at least theoretically at this time, protected by the nation. Constitutionally, Americans are guaranteed certain rights such as the rights of speech, press, property, life, the right to be secure in one’s home, the right to trial by jury, the right to bear arms, the right to vote, and the right to be treated equally under the law.  These rights provide the foundation for any theory of justice within American society.  New rights have been added as the government has come to see the need to provide a higher standard of living for its neediest citizens.  An example of this is the right for elderly people to have adequate health care in retirement.  This right was included in the Social Security Amendments of 1965.  The corresponding "duty" that supported this "right" came in the form of increases in payroll taxes.  Given that only .8 percent of the elderly population in the United States does not have access to health care, it is fair to say that the right to health care in old age has been reasonably upheld.  The government’s willingness to support the program’s cost, roughly 450 billion dollars out of a total 2.3 trillion dollar federal budget, helps to fulfill society’s duty to this segment of the population.  And yet, it is easy here to see the paradox between theory and reality.  Because government funding is finite, not all duties can be adequately addressed.

The reality of scarcity of resources within the governments of nations leads to a fundamental discord between philosophy and public policy: prioritization of rights and duties.  Theoretically, all rights and duties have equal weight.  By this principle, if any specific right is recognized, yet not upheld, societal justice is not attained.  Yet in order to bring together theory and reality, the dimension of possibility must be added to the equation.  Therefore, we can say that if a specific right is recognized, and it is possible for it to be upheld, then society is constrained by its corresponding duty.  This view of duty has a number of advantages.  To begin with, it views society as a progressive system. Many theories of government view a specific situation as an ideal end, which once attained, maximizes social justice.  Yet history continually shows that the boundaries of social justice are defined by the standards of the time.  If a government spends all its resources on upholding duties within its society, yet is unable to cover all theoretical duties, those not covered can be seen to represent the goals of society; progress being represented through their attainment.  While the society can be said to be acting justly, given its constraints, it also has a moral imperative to strive for a future condition where currently theoretical duties continue to be addressed and enforced.  In addition, this progressive view of rights and duties has no limit to what can be accomplished in the future, given that future rights are, at least in part, determined by what is possible within society.

Under this progressive view of rights and duties, there must be a framework to determine which rights can adequately be incorporated into government and society.  This framework should use a number of factors, including resources, technology, as well as a measure of good governance.  There are a number of conceptualizations put forward in philosophy which can be helpful in determining, fairly objectively, decisions based upon overall societal justice.  Discussion of these principles and there application to a progressive view of rights and duties would be helpful for the development of the theory, but for the present it is enough to say that to be compatible with a liberal concept of political justice, they must fulfill two principles:

  1. Any right guaranteed to an individual must be compatible with a similar right guaranteed to all people within the community (nation).
  1. "Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both; (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all."

Therefore, using these principles, any right added as society progresses must "arrange" society in a way that, at minimum, advantages all, and can be generally applied.

Rather than delve further into the discussion of which rights and duties should be incorporated into American government and society, it is easier, and likely more applicable, to examine specific rights that have in recent history been proclaimed within American society in order to determine whether the necessary duties have been enforced for the nation to live up to both the standards of justice and the moral imperative of progress.  For this reason, the rights to education and health care will briefly be examined with respect to these principles.  By determining how effectively these rights have been upheld, as well as whether their content has expanded (progressed) through time, it will be possible to determine the weight that their corresponding duties truly have within American government and society.

The right to a decent education, while not enumerated in the Constitution, has been an integral part of American society for many decades. I n 1948, the United States joined the United Nations in expressing the "Universal Declaration of Human Rights," which includes:

Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

More recently, the "No Child Left Behind Act of 2001," begins by stating: "The purpose of this title is to ensure that all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education..."  Finally, one of the current goals of the Department of Education is: "Strengthen the Federal commitment to assuring access to equal educational opportunity for every individual."  This shows that within American government, the idea of a right to education has been accepted, and steps have been put into place to enforce the corresponding duty (paying for and administering an adequate education system).  Yet the actual results of education policy in the United States show that the challenge of guaranteeing a right to education has not been met with a commitment to the duty to ensure all children are being aided by the system.  For example, 44 percent of children between the ages of 3 and 5 are in no early childhood educational program.  Five percent of young adults in high school drop out each year.  In 1999, only 77 percent of the population between the ages of 18 and 24 had received a high school diploma.  Eight percent of 16 to 19 year olds were neither in school or working.  While these percentages may seem relatively small, they represent millions of children (the population under the age of 19 in the United States currently stands at about 80 million ).  In addition to this, the quality of education has not increased steadily in the recent past. Between 1988 and 1999, the average scaled score of 9 year olds in reading stayed the same.  For 13 year olds, scores went up by .39 percent, and for 17 year olds, they decreased by .67 percent.  The statistics for achievement in mathematics showed a similar trend.  While these are only two indicators of progress in education, they show that improvement over time in our education system, at the least, has not been steady.  Given that, within both government and society, the right to a decent education has been expressed as necessary and possible, justice demands increasing educational funding to a point where it corresponds with the duty to provide for all children equally, and to ensure that the quality of education expands with the growth and development of society.

While education is a right that has been extended to all members of society, the right to health care is guaranteed only to specific groups in the United States.  Through Medicare and Medicaid, health care is guaranteed to all poverty stricken children, elderly, and disabled.  Yet 11.4 percent of children (8.4 million) in the United States do not have health insurance. 19.2 percent of children that live in poverty lack health insurance.  This means that those children who need health care most (children living in poverty), are the least likely to have it. Specific minority children are also more likely to be without health care, especially African Americans and Hispanics.  In addition, while Medicare and Medicaid rolls have expanded over the past years, the total number of uninsured has increased.  While the burden of fulfilling the duty to pay for health care for all disadvantaged children, elderly, and disabled is high (Medicare and Medicaid will cost a combined 475 billion dollars in 2005 ), the fact that it has been accepted by society as both possible and necessary means that it must be enforced in a way that satisfies the two principles of justice.  Unfortunately, the current health care system fails the second principle of justice in that it does not bring the guaranteed social and economic advantages to all people within the groups it covers.  In order to comply with both the principles of justice and the progressive view of rights and duties, it is necessary that all needy children, disabled and elderly be covered through increases in Medicare and Medicaid funding, and that the right of health care expand in the future, when possible.

As can be seen from the above discussion, one of the main jobs of governments is to enforce duties within society in a way that complies with both a liberal theory of justice and a progressive view of rights. Often, the enforcement of these duties is through allocation of taxes to government programs.  Therefore, a large part of the duty of citizens is fulfilled, with respect to governmentally upheld rights, if their taxes cover the government expenditures necessary to pay for all programs needed to enforce all recognized and possible duties.  Currently, the federal government has a 521 billion dollar deficit.  This represents a large portion of federal programs, and their subsequent rights, which have been determined to be both necessary and possible, but which have been degraded by the unwillingness of American government and society to fulfill the corresponding duty.  An undeniable fact of the current situation in American government is that, in order to truly uphold the rights maintained by the government, taxes must be raised so that each citizen is in full compliance with his or her duty.  This connection between the moral obligations of the citizen and his or her government is characteristic of representative government.  For, if a principle becomes universally embraced in society, democratic governance guarantees that eventually it will be represented in politics.  Therefore, the moral shortcomings of any democratic government weigh equally upon its citizenry.

In order to gain continuity in America between the theoretical justice of our proclaimed rights, and the actual justice of our enforced duties, new obligations will need to be imposed on the government and society.  For both the lawmakers and the taxpayers are equally culpable for the disconnect between these principles.  This disconnect is represented by the fact that specific rights, guaranteed by the government (education and health care are the examples cited here), are not being upheld for many of the most needy groups within society.  In addition, continuing deficits show a lack of commitment to uphold the duties that correspond to the rights proclaimed throughout American society.  These are commonly put forth criticisms of American government, but by framing them within the concept of duty, the moral necessity of action becomes apparent.  While it is often difficult for political theory to make judgments on specific public policy, through the lens of a progressive view of rights and duties, it is obvious that America, as a government and a society, is not fulfilling its moral obligation to maximize justice for all its citizens and to expand upon the current set of rights.  Still, a shift in policy towards fulfilling the specific duties necessary to uphold our proclaimed rights is all that is necessary to ensure societal justice. Using a progressive theory of rights and duties, societal justice is partially determined by what is possible.  The justice of current actions can be determined by past performance only if there is continuity between the two.  While it may not be possible to immediately uphold all citizens’ rights to education, and health care, as well as pay down the budget deficit, a movement in the direction of better fulfilling these duties is morally required, and will greatly increase overall justice in American society.

Originally posted to fitz2 on Fri Mar 21, 2008 at 11:48 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  tips (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    burrow owl, Doughnutman

    To you who gird yourselves for this great new fight in the never-ending warfare for the good of humankind...We stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord. -

    by fitz2 on Fri Mar 21, 2008 at 11:48:57 AM PDT

    •  I'm too anxious to get a beer (it's beautiful out (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      fitz2

      and I know there's a sidewalk cafe in the village with my name on it), but this looks great.  One thing the GOPers have going for them, I think, is a reflexive willingness to continually revisit first principles.  (interestingly, this was described by an AEI scholar as a function of being a conservative academic; when colleagues critique conservativism, it's not in a technocratic way but rather is a critique of first principles, which in turn leads to constantly having to revisit them.  Interesting thesis.  Anyhoo.....beer!)

      This is bookmarked and rec'd, though, for less sunny days.

      "[G]lobalization is...increasing the efficiency of resource allocation through stronger capital markets" - Barack Obama

      by burrow owl on Fri Mar 21, 2008 at 12:03:53 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  A few thoughts (0+ / 0-)

    Before you start to innumerate rights, you need a theory of rights. From whence go they come? If they are ultimately moral in nature, from whose morality are they derived, and to what extent is it acceptable to impose that morality on persons who are (involuntarily) a part of the commonwealth.

    Thought number two: this won't get the attention a candidate diary would, but it's a worthwhile enterprise, and I hope you won't be discouraged.

    You want to approach with great caution the theory -- popular in academia -- that the purpose of a system of thought is to attack the disconnect between social practice and what is right; i.e., to be inherently critical or even revolutionary in nature. It is a widespread idea, but a poor one. Any theory about our politics should include synthetic as well as analytic observations -- why and how it works to the extent that it does work, not just the ways in which it fails. A purely antagonistic doctrine is barren.

    Clinton '08, because: [W]e are here as on a darkling plain Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash by night.

    by Robert Farrell on Fri Mar 21, 2008 at 12:03:13 PM PDT

    •  Really quickly: I think we can presume (0+ / 0-)

      from some of the technical terms, as well as from the mere fact that the diary is a liberal political theory of rights, that the diarist is proceeding from the constructivist contractarianism of Rawls and his ilk.  

      "[G]lobalization is...increasing the efficiency of resource allocation through stronger capital markets" - Barack Obama

      by burrow owl on Fri Mar 21, 2008 at 12:05:25 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I have never been a fan of Rawls, myself (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    burrow owl

    The idea of the veil of ignorance, to my mind, is not sound. People often have a bias towards risk-taking, as well as fascinations with celebrity and power; there is no rational reason to believe that people would, in fact, chose the kind of society Rawls himself favors.

    Nor am I at easy in my mind at imposing things on people on the basis of an argument about what I think they would believe if they weren't biased by their own self-interest. In real life, people often do that very thing, and it rarely works out.

    I don't think Rawls should make anyone forget Thomas Hobbes. A progressive philosophy, in my opinion, starts from there -- with the reality of society as an involuntary contract; a gang, no less. It's right to enforce it is will is real (I am a progressive) but I don't think Rawls gets you there.

    Clinton '08, because: [W]e are here as on a darkling plain Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash by night.

    by Robert Farrell on Fri Mar 21, 2008 at 12:17:52 PM PDT

    •  man, I couldn't disagree more (0+ / 0-)

      I've read Hobbes and reject pretty much all of his ideas.  It is exactly the irrational bias towards "risk taking, as well as (the) fascination with celebrity and power" that make the veil of ignorance so useful.  It allows us to construct a set of principles that accounts for every individual's rational self-interest, because the person under the veil could end up being any person in society.  

      I don't think  to start a political philosophy with an involuntary contract gets you to a just society.  Just my opinion.  Glad to hear your views though.

      To you who gird yourselves for this great new fight in the never-ending warfare for the good of humankind...We stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord. -

      by fitz2 on Fri Mar 21, 2008 at 12:26:55 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I suggest taking another look at Hobbes (0+ / 0-)

        Hobbes is like the Plato of governmental and rights philosophy. You can disagree with him, but he is always worthy of consideration and respect.

        You cannot lay out what a person's rational self-interest is without taking into account their wants and desires. That point was made by another great "H," David Hume. There is no such thing as a rational want. Goals are not rational. Means, plans, tools and strategies involve rationality. But there is no rational reason why I shouldn't go down into the basement and put a bullet in my brain.

        Rationality is the servant of visceral desire. This is why Hobbes tries to define what it is that people want before defining what kind of society they should rationally prefer.

        Clinton '08, because: [W]e are here as on a darkling plain Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash by night.

        by Robert Farrell on Fri Mar 21, 2008 at 12:37:32 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  could you call it (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    fitz2

    the fourth treatise of government?

    What would prevent Captain America from being a hero "Death, Maybe"

    by Doughnutman on Fri Mar 21, 2008 at 12:29:09 PM PDT

    •  I really wanted to call it: (0+ / 0-)

      "First Treatise on Duty," but then I just changed it to "On Duty," and to post it here, I went with progressive because most people are progressives :)

      Plus, it would be a bit presumptuous to add my theory on to Locke's treatises on government.  

      To you who gird yourselves for this great new fight in the never-ending warfare for the good of humankind...We stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord. -

      by fitz2 on Fri Mar 21, 2008 at 12:43:41 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  This assertion seems problematic (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    burrow owl

    You write: "New rights have been added as the government has come to see the need to provide a higher standard of living for its neediest citizens.  An example of this is the right for elderly people to have adequate health care in retirement."

    I don't think you can presume that every time the government creates a program, like Medicare, that a corresponding right is created. Governments do all kinds of things, and can do them, or stop doing them, without changing the social contract. Today, my government is torturing people it suspects of terrorist ties. Ignoring for a moment the questions of the suspects own rights, would you argue that by doing these things, or by passing legislation to bring them about, the government gives me a right to be protected from terrorist threats by the torture of suspects?

    Governments are flawed; they make mistakes. These include government programs that provide services. Rights, as you say, are derived from morality. Therefore while you may argue that a moral obligation should inspire a government program, I don't think it follows that a government program creates a human right.

    Clinton '08, because: [W]e are here as on a darkling plain Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash by night.

    by Robert Farrell on Fri Mar 21, 2008 at 12:30:38 PM PDT

    •  Check out the two principles of justice: (0+ / 0-)

            1.  Any right guaranteed to an individual must be compatible with a similar right guaranteed to all people within the community (nation).

            2. "Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both; (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all."

      The situation you describe fails the first test, which is why it is not just.  I think you'll find that when you apply these two principles to government action the theory works extremely effectively in showing what is just and not.

      And yes, I think you have to assume that every time the government makes a program that conforms with these two principles that a right is either created or expanded, otherwise there law has no effect, no ability to enforce duties on citizens.  

      To you who gird yourselves for this great new fight in the never-ending warfare for the good of humankind...We stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord. -

      by fitz2 on Fri Mar 21, 2008 at 12:42:15 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Why so? (0+ / 0-)

        You assert that a right provided by the government creates a duty and vice versa. Why?

        A law that provides, say, a stoplight, or subsidized drugs, does not seem to me to require a right to be created or expanded, unless you assume that a government has no function other than to enforce rights. Is that your conclusion and if so, why?

        Where are you getting these "principles of justice" and why should they mean any more to me than the five pillars of the Koran or any other statement of faith?

        Clinton '08, because: [W]e are here as on a darkling plain Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash by night.

        by Robert Farrell on Fri Mar 21, 2008 at 12:52:26 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  first off, (0+ / 0-)

          the principles of justice are Rawls' two principles of justice, as proposed in "A Theory of Justice," the liberty principle and the difference principle.  Don't accept them necessarily, but think about them and whether they define justice or not.  I think they do pretty well.  

          And yes, my assumption that the government has no other function than to propose rights and enforce duties, because I don't see anything else the government can do, other than maybe a certain amount of educating the public, but that's dangerous in itself.  Adding a stop light expands on our right to safe roads and expands the duty to stop by one more intersection.  Subsidizing drugs expands on our somewhat tenuous right to have affordable health care, while imposing the duty on tax payers to pay for the subsidy.  As I say above, many of the duties in society are fulfilled by citizens' paying taxes.  

          To you who gird yourselves for this great new fight in the never-ending warfare for the good of humankind...We stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord. -

          by fitz2 on Fri Mar 21, 2008 at 01:04:21 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  Argument from authority. (0+ / 0-)

            I get that Rawls said it, but that doesn't make it so. Suppose I think they do not express justice. How would you argue they do? More importantly, how would we share a society without agreeing on them?

            I'd like you to explain why, other than the symmetry of it, you think that every action by the government creates a duty. Why should that be so? The government works for us. We tell it to do certain things, and it is not clear to me that these things always or necessarily create parallel obligations. It is true that the purpose of government is to serve the people; it is not true that the purpose of the people is to serve the state.

            While you can take an action of the government and retroactively name a right after it, again, I'm not seeing the argument that this is necessary. Say the government declares December National Holly Month. Do I now have a right to a holly-themed month? (And have I incurred some holly-related duty?)

            Clinton '08, because: [W]e are here as on a darkling plain Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash by night.

            by Robert Farrell on Fri Mar 21, 2008 at 01:16:20 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  OK, so when the government does something totally (0+ / 0-)

              symbolic it doesn't create a duty, but it's also meaningless.  If the government made it a national holiday, you would have a right to be compensated for working or the right to take the day off, and businesses would be burdened with the duty of paying the extra expense, perhaps with government help, enforcing new duties on tax payers.  

              As for the parallel obligations, most of the time, as I said, they involve paying taxes, not always.

              As for the principles of justice, the first basically says that "each person has an equal right to the most extensive liberties compatible with similar liberties for all."  Now, I don't like to talk in terms of liberties, but in terms of rights and duties, but they mean the same thing.  This seems a pretty straightforward prerequisite to justice, ie you can't have rights that limit my rights and that you can't have rights that I wouldn't have if I were in your position.  

              The second principle I actually only take half of because it is much more far-reaching when in full.  I say "Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both; (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all."

              Rawls says instead of to everyone's advantage, "to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged persons."  Regardless, this principle of justice says that you can make laws that immediately benefit individuals, even individuals, but those laws must be in total a benefit to those less well off or the overall public.  It's why a tax break for companies that invest in America is just, but a tax break for companies that invest over seas is not.  

              I'd love to hear why you think these don't represent justice or why they don't fully represent justice.  

              To you who gird yourselves for this great new fight in the never-ending warfare for the good of humankind...We stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord. -

              by fitz2 on Fri Mar 21, 2008 at 01:38:46 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

              •  by the way, (0+ / 0-)

                I've got to run right now, but I've enjoyed our discussion.  I'll reply when I get back, you can count on that.  

                To you who gird yourselves for this great new fight in the never-ending warfare for the good of humankind...We stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord. -

                by fitz2 on Fri Mar 21, 2008 at 01:44:08 PM PDT

                [ Parent ]

  •  Without getting too bogged down . . . (0+ / 0-)

    These are the points I'm having trouble with. The first is the notion that government actions create rights, but only when they conform to Rawl's theory of justice.  That seems to me to be at once too limited and too sweeping. On the one hand, it suggests a government could happily murder its political enemies and starve its people provided it had prudently refrained from passing legislation that gave the public rights to be free from such injustice.

    Human and civil rights are generally understood -- by the Founders, for example -- as preexisting realities of moral law which government must be brought into conformity with. If they do not exist until the government legislates them, you absolve the government of any responsibility for respecting human rights; those rights don't exist until the legislation exists.

    Again, the government does a great many things, some of them foolish, some of them practical, which do not seem to me to make sense in terms of rights, unless one dilutes that concept until it loses all meaning. So I have a right to litter-free highways, bridges to nowhere, and accurate thread counts on sheet packaging. Does that strengthen or weaken my right to protection of my home, person, and effects from searches and seizures? I think we benefit by being a little more selective in our concept of rights.

    While one could argue that everything the government does costs somebody something, I'm still not understanding your idea of parallel rights and obligations. Costs and services, maybe, or the surrender of personal freedom for influence via elected proxy over our neighbors. But no, I don't see the duty you are describing. The state can impose an obligation on me, which is a functional thing, but not a duty, which is a moral concept.

    You ask me why I think these concepts don't represent justice. I'm not asserting them, so as a matter of principle in argument, I do think the burdern is on you to provide some evidence that they do. That said, this is how I would reply; they aren't bad, but they aren't any better than the Sermon on the Mount, or the five pillars, or a simple statement of the golden rule. They are assertions of morality, and they aren't proven. Thus the question for me is, not whether they are sound, but whether they are sound enough to form the basis of government, which rests ultimately on coercive force -- on the gun. What about those who do not believe they reflect justice? Will we impose this concept of justice on them? Is that just?

    Further, the formulation assumes that social and economic inequalities can be done away with or permitted as we chose. Is that so? Notably absent is any concept of property rights. That is an important component to most people's concept of justice -- the idea that what's mine is mine, and what's yours is yours. This part of the concept of justice is awkward for progressives, but it can't be ignored.

    Philosophy from Socrates to the present day has argued over what justice is, and what a just society is. Rawls, while reaching for a universal theory, asks his readers to make a lot of cultural and ideological assumptions along with him to arrive at a definition of justice.

    Clinton '08, because: [W]e are here as on a darkling plain Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash by night.

    by Robert Farrell on Fri Mar 21, 2008 at 02:15:35 PM PDT

    •  You point out a bunch of objections... (0+ / 0-)

      that I hope to expand on in further diaries, but I'll start here.  The first is an important explanation of rights and government.  There are really two important issues here: what are universal rights and how do we know when justice demands that they be proclaimed and enforced.  I think there are problems with saying that the U.S. constitution represents a singular set of principles that are somehow more universal, natural or fundamental.

      Your example of property rights is the perfect example of this.  While property rights are an important foundation of our democracy, I don't think they 'outweigh' any number of rights, some not in the constitution.  I think our income tax system to a certain extent reinforces this belief.  

      Now, I don't dismiss natural law or the idea of some universal principles such as life, liberty, speech and what not (although I would contend property is not one of those), but would say that regardless of where exactly we come down on that question, we are or at least should be at a point where we are moving beyond those first principles and expanding our rights, ie health care, education, maybe a clean environment someday.  We therefore must determine a system of justice that can directly inform our government in reaching that potential.  

      So, I say you have to take two things into account, what is possible and what conforms to the principles of justice (more on this in a sec).  In this way, regardless of what the government says, you couldn't have had a right to universal health care in the 18th century; it was not possible.  But you could begin the process of developing that right through a right for children to get vaccinations in the 19th century...

      Now we have a question of how to prioritize our use of resources in establishing new rights; does health care come before education or vice versa.  There are a number of constructions to use in determining this, which is going to be an another entry down the road but -- I know you're not going to like this next statement -- one of them would be some derivation of the veil of ignorance.  There could be others though.  

      Finally, I think it's important to make the distinction that government actions don't make something just, but they do create rights.  We must use our system of justice to decide if something is just, but rights derive from the government because it is the only organization in society which we can allow to enforce the requisite duties.  It is also the platform through which legislators weigh the possible expansion of new rights and duties.  Now you can have rights within a society that are unjust, which is a whole other discussion.  

      OK, so I don't know if I've answered everything, but I'll touch on the concept of justice again and then call it quits for now, but I'm gonna write some more diaries later.  The first thing is that it's a concept of justice for government; I'm not Kant, so I don't believe that it is necessarily anything that we should apply to the individual.  

      Secondly, I will not say that it's the absolute perfect theory of justice because how could I know.  But after reading the different theories and thinking about it, it's the one that seems best to me.  I'm open to new ideas, but I think it's important to have a relatively strict construction of justice in order to eliminate the ambiguity between right and wrong in so much of what our government does.  My theory, or Rawls', combines the principle of equality and the fundamental of distributive justice that I believe in.  

      Perfectly honestly, I can see that you have read and thought about this yourself, and I think that if Rawls didn't convince you of his theory, I respect that.  And perhaps over time we'll evolve closer or further away in these views, but I don't think I'm going to be able to convince you to change your view on how to define justice in the comments section :)

      To you who gird yourselves for this great new fight in the never-ending warfare for the good of humankind...We stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord. -

      by fitz2 on Sat Mar 22, 2008 at 03:03:40 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Let's leave it there, then. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    fitz2

    I should clarify a few points about my position:

    * I didn't say or imply that property rights were more important than other rights. My point was that property rights or the lack thereof have to be addressed in any theory of rights, or justice.

    * Nor did I say or do I believe that the rights enumerated by the Founders were the only human rights. They did hit most of the biggies, though. My point -- which I know you will understand, since you are already looking at rights in a functional way -- is that, as a practical matter, diluting our concept of rights with hundreds or thousands of additions could weaken those critical liberties. Now, we can label anything we want to a right, but as with any label, when you start slapping it on everything under the sun, it loses it force. That's dangerous; the strength of a right is ultimately the moral outrage that a violation of it inspires.

    * There are rights and rights. The government can create a legal right to something. It cannot create a moral right or a human right. If those are not seperate and preexisting, they are fairly useless, since their primary function is to lay constraints and imperatives on government.

    * I understand your theory that rights are constantly expanding as the government does new things, I just don't agree with it. It just doesn't make a lot of sense. I get that you want rights to be flexible, but you need to be careful. Flexibility in the direction of greater empowerment cannot be purchased at the price of flexibility allowing the compromise of rights attained. Also, the government needs to be able to conduct democratic experiments in the provision of services and other fields without automatically creating a "right."

    One way to get to a similar place would be to state in terms of universal rights a government imperative to provide for certain needs to the limit of its capabilities. As its capabilities change, so does the scope of this universal and unchanging right.

    Good luck with your series.

    Clinton '08, because: [W]e are here as on a darkling plain Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash by night.

    by Robert Farrell on Sat Mar 22, 2008 at 08:26:35 PM PDT

    •  a bunch to think about... (0+ / 0-)

      thanks

      To you who gird yourselves for this great new fight in the never-ending warfare for the good of humankind...We stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord. -

      by fitz2 on Sat Mar 22, 2008 at 09:05:30 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

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