Right and Duty
Political Economy7
Thanks to Doug Douma for inspiring the thought which led to this post.

Right and Duty

Most modern political philosophy is built upon the first principle of human rights. Our very Declaration of Independence lays these out as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, modifying John Locke’s original formulation of the rights to life, liberty, and property. The North Carolina constitution adds the right to the fruit of one’s labor.

Of course, even from this starting point, political philosophies diverge wildly on what they consider among those rights. From the fairly minimal set enshrined in the Declaration, our constitution adds the right to free speech, free religious practice, ownership of weapons, among others. More recently, people talk of the right to a living wage, the right to healthcare, or in Finland, the right to high-speed internet access.

Clearly, however, one cannot have an enforceable right to everything. Society would forthwith collapse, for the earth has no bounty from which to support unlimited human wants. In principle, there must be a way to distinguish useful and beneficial rights from unnecessary or even harmful ones, something which advocates of things like the latter three rights generally fail to do. Advocates of the minimal set life, liberty, and property often appeal to the distinction between “positive” and “negative” rights: that is, a right to something, and the right from something – the former being illegitimate. That is to say, one has a right not to be aggressed upon, but one does not have a right to the fruit of someone else’s labor (e.g., free healthcare or internet).

However, the elegance of this distinction is illusory: for the enforcement of every right from something is also predicated on a right to something – arbitration. The right to property means nothing if one has no redress against a thief. Indeed, a right is a claim which must normatively be absolutely fulfilled, so without the threat of force, “right” becomes an empty term.

This point is of immense practical importance. In the United States, to sue the government over a violation of constitutional rights, one does not sue under the Constitution, but under Section 1983 of the US Code, which grants the right to sue the government over such rights violations. To think that the rights we enjoy as American citizens hinge not on our Constitution, but an obscure section of the civil code!

To assert a right is meaningless without the threat of force behind it. Any negative right, therefore, implies a positive right to have force exercised on one’s behalf for the violation of that right. Even Anarchists cannot get around this fact, for social order under such a system rests on the transferability of one’s right to self-defense.

Yet it seems clear from history that a certain conception of rights is necessary for civilization, even if the proliferation thereof is inimical to it. What principle is there to stop us when we have assigned enough? Doug Douma poses the question which leads us to the answer:

If the only justified Rights are the “negative Rights” of Life, Liberty, and Property are the obligations supposedly owed Children by their parents thus artificial as “positive Rights” and therefore not Rights at all?

Where the juxtaposition of the negative right to liberty and the positive right to arbitration left room for confusion, this example makes clear the relevant distinction: each right exists opposite a duty. My right to life is implied by your duty not to kill me. My right to property is implied by your duty not to steal from me. And a child’s rights are implied by the parents’ duty.

The question then is, which holds a positive existence – the right or the duty? I have framed the preceding sentences in such a way that the duty implies the right, but I could just as easily say your duty not to kill me is implied by my right to life. Under anarchism such a distinction becomes irrelevant, for in such a framework a right pertains only to the individual and lays no claim to anyone else except by contract. Even enforcement of the right to life becomes a contract transferring the right to self-defense. The question of which has a positive existence only has meaning where there exists arbitration backed by force, for it is only made manifest in the further question: is the function of the law provision of rights, or enforcement of duties?

First let me clarify the word “duty”. As I have argued before, duty has no meaning apart from means and ends (this opposed to deontological thought, in which duty is performed for duty’s sake). If we define “duty” as “something which one ought by necessity to do”, we can further divide it by the nature of that necessity into natural duty and legal duty.

By natural duty I mean duty according to one’s nature. In this sense, everyone has by nature a duty to himself: this is human nature, that any action has as its end some good for the self. This implies a duty to God, being himself the summum bonum. We might think of such duty as moral duty, for though it is necessary, it is not compelled. Such duty refers to our highest and immutable ends from which we can neither escape nor even coherently wish to escape.

What then of “natural rights” theology? Nowhere in the Bible is there an indication that such rights exist on their own. It is always the duty which is assigned, never the right which is afforded. Furthermore the position of man before God, one of complete dependence – not to mention the position of man before man, one of humility – should make it clear that the idea of human rights as things in themselves contradicts the entire tenor of the Bible. Rights proceed only from higher to lower, not from man to man (except in limited contractual contexts), among whom exist only duties. The absolute right of God (or more aptly, his sovereignty) is the only right with a positive existence, and from which derive all human duties, including those which imply human rights.

In addition to natural duty, there is also legal duty, which is more familiar as such because it is compelled. Such duty refers to ends which the law has elevated from means – that is to say, constraints on behavior which the law mandates as ends in themselves.

From this, it should be apparent that the law has no power to provide a right as such – only to enforce duties, which it does by elevating means to ends. If I am killed, the law cannot restore my right to life; it can only punish the killer for dereliction of his duty not to kill. This is also why the concept of negligence exists in the common law: no right is invoked, but a duty is presumed to reasonably care for the safety of other people. Similarly it is easier to identify when a parent has failed to execute his duty than when a child’s rights have been violated – simply because one cannot define the rights of a child without reference to the duties of a parent. To do so inevitably leads to a conceptual mess.

In the same way, a “right to healthcare” is even less coherent, which has been argued by many, though unfortunately often under the framework of positive and negative rights. The law can force a duty upon doctors to care for patients free of charge, but it cannot guarantee healthcare to patients, simply because it cannot make more doctors. The failure of such a right is precisely in the fact that it causes fewer doctors to enter the profession.

There is no clean distinction between positive and negative rights; only rights more or less contrary to reality. The rights to healthcare, a job, and internet are manifestly contrary to economic law and indeed reality itself. The rights to life, liberty, and property are less so – not because they are categorically different from the former rights, but only because their converse duties are so salutary to civilization.

The final point then is, among the legal duties, to distinguish between beneficial and harmful duties. Some are clearly necessary, for natural duty is no effective constraint upon those who have a faulty conception of their own final good (that is, those who lack the revelation which leads one to reason from one’s own good to the glory of God). As James Madison noted, if men were angels, no government would be necessary. Natural duty would be sufficient for social order and force would be superfluous. But we do not live in such a world (as even the anarchists concede in affording a right to self-defense), and so we find society needing laws, yet needing also to limit their proliferation.

In this, there is no more principle than should lead us to the correct price of milk. That is, legal duties cannot ever be set in stone. Rather, they must be subjected to the same forces of competition that lead to beneficial results in the market sector. Suffice it to say in conclusion, as Hayek does in The Fatal Conceit:

Only expectations produced by long practice can create duties for the members of the community in which they prevail, which is one reason why prudence must be exercised in the creation of expectations, lest one incur a duty that one cannot fulfill.


Law, Natural Rights


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  • 1

    Doug Doma

    Jan 23, 2011 at 21:17 | Reply

    Beautiful! “each right exists opposite a duty.” This is my conclusion as well in http://libertarianchristians.com/2010/06/07/the-proper-origin-of-rights/

    Rights are formed by what is “not right” for others to do.

    But, perhaps we should distinguish between negative and positive duties. I have a negative duty not to kill you, but can I have a positive duty to provide from someone, such as a child?

    • 2

      Cameron Harwick

      Jan 23, 2011 at 21:57

      “But, perhaps we should distinguish between negative and positive duties.”

      It’s definitely a better distinction than positive and negative rights, but I can’t think of a good reason why positive duties should be categorically dismissed, except that they exist farther down the scale of difficulty to enforce. I would cite the duty of a parent to a child, but you sound skeptical even of that. Do you think society can exist with no positive duties?

    • 3

      Doug Doma

      Jan 24, 2011 at 7:13

      One challenge is to determine what duties are possibles that don’t conflict with Life, Liberty, and Property. Since we’re looking at those Rights from a Biblical standpoint, it seems we should look to the Bible for other positive moral duties as well. I haven’t been able to find much on the duty of raising a child. I’m beginning to think that if there are to be any positive duties, then we must not be too stringent on the Right of Liberty.

    • 4

      Cameron Harwick

      Jan 24, 2011 at 11:11

      “I’m beginning to think that if there are to be any positive duties, then we must not be too stringent on the Right of Liberty.”

      I’ll agree with that. I’d say the right to liberty can’t be more than a presumption of liberty where no duties exist. So to adhere to it stringently as a right in itself, though probably still preferable to having a bunch of onerous legal duties, would not be very realistic.

      And reasoning from the Bible to particular legal duties isn’t easy, since what legal duties do exist there are often bound up in other moral duties which would make for very poor legal duties. So (for now at least) I’m content to remain agnostic on the question of what particular legal duties are beneficial, except empirically.

  • 5

    Doug Doma

    Jan 23, 2011 at 21:21 | Reply

    Awesome: “What then of “natural rights” theology? Nowhere in the Bible is there an indication that such rights exist on their own. It is always the duty which is assigned, never the right which is afforded.”

    This is exactly what I’ve been thinking

  • 6

    Matt Cavedon

    Dec 16, 2011 at 18:32 | Reply

    Two bones to pick:

    1) You suggest that natural duty is insufficient as a check on human behavior because some people have a faulty understanding of revelation. This seems to be a cerebral notion, akin to the notion held by some of the ancients that one cannot do what one knows to be wrong. Do you believe this to be the case?

    2) On Hayekian evolutionary theory… It seems to me a perfectly reasonable macro-social model, but largely useless in terms of micro-ethics. How do I “evolve” some social practice? It seems more useful in terms of institutional design, a preference for common law over positive law, etc. But it isn’t as though some judge can choose evolutionary logic over something else in actually crafting a new legal rule, other than by adopting a preference for judicial restraint, though this just casts the matter back to the legislature. Where do you think the practical impact of Hayek’s insights ought to be?

    • 7

      Cameron Harwick

      Dec 17, 2011 at 0:25

      Thanks, Matt! To address your points:

      1) I’ll admit that reality is very messy given the conflicting passions we all face (hence Romans 7:19), but I do regard that idea as fundamentally correct. Of course nominally “knowing” something is wrong is not the same as being convinced it is wrong, so I wouldn’t call it totally cerebral. For example, I am 100% convinced that jumping off a 10-story building would lead to my demise. At this level of certainty, it’s as apt to say that I -can- not do so as that I -will- not do so. I am unable to desire to make that jump.

      I consider this the essence of sanctifying faith as well: as the Holy Spirit reveals (not just, or even necessarily, intellectually) the supreme worth of God, we become in equal measure less willing (=less able to desire) to sin. This is also the power of sin; that despite our intellect, we are at a deep level convinced that it has something good for us. Immediate good has the power to blind us even to an overriding Good which will be realized only in (what seems) the distant future.

      (I’ve got a few posts on the subject, but they’re all several years old, so I’d like a crack at editing them before I post them here)

      2) You’re probably right that the evolutionary insights are largely irrelevant to most people who are making small-scale plans and rules within a larger emergent order. I see it as more descriptive than prescriptive, though the main practical takeaway is anti-prescriptive. A preference for decentralization when crafting institutions, a preference for liberty when crafting rules.

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Hi, I'm C. Harwick, an economics PhD candidate in Virginia with an interest in monetary theory, institutional evolution, and folk music.

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