On Freedom: Rights and Responsibilities

The price of greatness is responsibility.

Winston Churchill

A common sentiment in contemporary society is that rights must be balanced by responsibilities: that it’s all well and good for people to advocate for their rights, but they must also be mindful of their responsibilities. Implicit in this reasoning is the separation of rights and responsibilities into different categories, which betrays a misunderstanding of both. Individual rights are not only a guarantee of individual sovereignty, they are the only possible codification of authentic responsibility.

The reason for this is that authentic responsibility lies in the full ownership of all aspects of one’s existence and of the results of one’s choices. Authentic responsibility is realized only where life forces individuals to understand that full ownership of their existence belongs to them alone. It is not realized where this ownership can be externalized onto others. Many people are unequal to the challenge of existential ownership, and would prefer to saddle others with the burdens of their existence, often using the state as the instrument of “equalization.” In all of this, responsibility is trumpeted, yet it actually reflects the absence of responsibility, because it reflects the abdication of ownership.

Since the irresponsible cannot be made to understand their abdication of existential ownership, we codify collective responsibility and ownership through the intermediary of individual rights. Where individuals can refuse impositions and are free to responsibly pursue their own interests, existential ownership becomes universally allocated to where it naturally belongs. Where individual sovereignty is eroded, the irresponsible find places where ownership for their own existence can be externalized onto others. This is not to defend anti social behavior, itself irresponsible, it is to highlight that the erosion of individual sovereignty is the mechanism through which collective responsibility fails.

Responsibility might be amenable to being codified in a static reality where there is no change. In a dynamic reality, however, it is not actually possible even for the responsible to codify responsibility with sufficient resolution for society to be assured of functional operation into the future. One can only codify individual sovereignty in the form of clearly articulated rights as the indirect proxy of the responsibility and ownership one wishes to see blossom.

The COVID pandemic has proven a good example of the failure of responsibility where sovereignty is eroded. Those unwilling to take full ownership of their own health, the choices they have made throughout their lives (which may have contributed to its decline), their own irrational fears, or the fact of their own advanced age externalize ownership of these things onto others. Those forced to interrupt their lives, close their businesses, wear masks, socially distance, and accept vaccines to make others feel safer reflects an imposition of burden and ownership to where it doesn’t naturally belong and an allocation of responsibility and ownership away from where it naturally belongs. Those at greater risk or with greater fear must be willing to accept greater responsibility for staying safe, and must be prepared to make greater sacrifices for it as a matter of owning their own existence. Young people having their businesses destroyed and their future economic prospects dimmed have been forced to accept responsibility and burden disproportionate to the natural contours of their existence. Individual sovereignty is therefore the “no” which forces existential ownership to where it naturally belongs, and is necessary to ensure the survival of responsibility in society.

If this sounds heartless, examine it from another perspective. Those working to make ends meet or keep a business running in a dimming economy with pandemic restrictions are at greater risk of financial ruin or being unable to marry or retire than those who worked during better times and have already raised children and retired with secure economic futures. Should the retired be forced to work once again or be forced to pay to keep the failing businesses of the younger generation afloat? Can the myriad existential details associated with economic hardship be compared to the myriad existential details of a pandemic and used as a justification to externalize existential ownership onto others?

Individual rights therefore do not only exist to service individual sovereignty, they exist also to service collective existential ownership. This is precisely how we can discern greater legitimacy in negative rights than in positive ones. If the essence of rights is to prevent the externalization of existential ownership onto others, then positive rights are incompatible with this philosophy. Positive rights merely reflect the externalization of existential ownership onto others using the established verbiage of individual rights. Positive rights are less legitimate rights because they do not simultaneously reflect the guarantee of individual sovereignty and the codification of collective existential ownership.

Perhaps the error made by the American founders was therefore the elaboration of their philosophy in the terms of individual rights. Their philosophy is one of responsibility and existential ownership actualized through the intermediary of individual rights. As they emphasized the intermediary, our culture has inherited a nihilistic philosophy of an intermediary rather than a philosophy of that which it was aimed at. We must emphasize responsibility and existential ownership as the fundamental reality of society and of evolution, and we must understand that the only coherent means available to us to actualize them where irresponsibility is the norm lies in the codification of individual sovereignty. Where individual sovereignty fails, so does existential ownership and authentic responsibility.

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