Tuesday, March 8, 2011

On rights, conveniences and obligations

I want to continue my thoughts from my last post on obligation. I particularly want to focus on the obligations that we must assume given our rights and conveniences in this world.

I am no expert of history, and no expert of international affairs. I know little of the governance structures that exist in many parts of the world. Yet it is is undeniable, to me at least, that as time has moved on in our societies, the rights granted to people by their governments have on the whole increased. (Libertarians may not think so.) Women have the right to vote in most parts of the world now, and much of the world has adopted some form of democracy. The list of human rights has increased over time, it seems, and for good reason. I find it difficult to comprehend and swallow the many violations against the sanctity of the world propagated through war and similar crimes. Increasingly, rights have the character such that they are applicable to all people living in a jurisdiction, and that is an absolutely wonderful thing. These are rights that confer upon all of us the access and ability to partake governance, which affects our daily lives. (Many of us do not exercise these rights, but that is a different story.) At the same time, we have had a proliferation of "convenience" in our lives. We have made it a priority for ourselves to make convenience more convenient, to give more and more people more and more access to more and more things. We have become so accustomed to convenience that we think it a human right to have access to these conveniences. In fact, many people have said that access to the the internet has become a fundamental human right. 

The right to open a business that violently extracts natural resources exists for all of us, and although there are laws such as NEPA that do require us to "consider" the environmental impacts, the environment has been continuously degraded over time. In fact, as long as there is a "just" compensation to the affected people for pollution and environmental harm, such activities can go on. Our legal system is set up such that we have obligations to people, but no obligations to the water they drink, or to the land they stand on, or to the air they breathe. As long as the impacts of our actions can be monetised to a value that other people accept, those impacts can be made to occur. Given extremely toxic amounts of pollution, people may reach a settlement and leave to find a new home. But what about the old home? What about the river in which was dumped PCBs? Our right to compensation has come at the expense of the environment. Many of our rights and conveniences have come with increasing detriment to the environment.

As we have moved through time, we have continued to provide others with proxies to provide us the basic necessities of life - our rights and increasingly our conveniences. As the number of these proxies has increased, we have lost our connections with the elements that provide for us and sustain us. These proxies have been provided to the government and companies, and we feel that their only job is to serve us and to secure our rights and conveniences. Yet I do not believe that the list of our obligations, as citizens, has grown in proportion with the list of our rights and our conveniences. The right to vote has not come with the obligation to vote, at least in the US. No one can deny that the convenience of a new laptop is benign on the environment, regardless of whether or not we feel it is a human right to have access to the internet, and still we have no obligation to make sure it isn't harming people before we buy it, or after we are done using it. As I wrote a couple of days ago, our increased mental and emotional capacities place on us the burden of obligation. We must expand the scope of our obligations with every increasing right, with every increasing convenience. Rights exists only because there is land beneath our feet, water to drink and air to breath. Conveniences only exist because nature provides us the materials for them. Obligations will allow us to fully realise the impacts of these rights and conveniences.

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