Monday, 13 April 2015

Letting go of 'rights'

Many people believe that human 'rights' are something we are born with. But have you ever stopped to think that maybe 'rights' is just another concept someone made up?

Years ago at university I took a course in Chinese history and philosophy. One of the things that stuck with me was an article that compared eastern and western views of rights and responsibility. In the west, the idea of individual rights is sacred; we believe that everyone is equal and we should all have access to certain things that are considered necessary to our well-being.

However in the east they look at things differently. Instead of seeing things in terms of rights they instead focus on responsibility. From this perspective, when each person fulfills their responsibility to others everyone's needs are met. The Chinese philosopher Confucius established the basis for this worldview. Even today if you ask a modern Asian young person about their ambitions many will talk about getting a job that will allow them to support their family, while in the west many young people are more interested in their own individual success.

Now I'm not saying that one or the other of these views is the right one. But I am suggesting that just like so many of the things we hold onto, the concept of rights is just that: a concept. More than this I'd like to suggest that this concept of individual rights may actually hold us back from being free and prevent us from evolving as a culture.

Take for example a woman who deeply desires to have a child but because she does not have a partner, or is not in a stable financial situation, this option is not available to her. In this instance her belief in her 'right' to have a child might cause her to see herself as a victim, to feel that in some way she has been cheated by life. This view of herself can only lead to unhappiness.

And while we all go around demanding our 'rights' we forget that as a human species we are actually denying these rights to the majority of people. In fact, your 'right' to own an iPhone or to have four children may be denying others access to more basic necessities such as clean water or food. Not to mention the needs of other species on our planet.

Human rights and social justice are often considered to be synonymous, but perhaps it is this very idea of 'rights' that gets in the way of developing a truly socially just society. Perhaps this separation of ourselves into individual units is promoting a competitive, grasping culture that divides the world into winners and losers.

Instead, we could see through this illusion of separation and understand the world and ourselves as they really are: a interdependent whole in which every element is indivisible from the rest. From this perspective it might be possible to create a culture where the needs of all beings are met, for as Joanna Macy points out in her beautiful book World as Lover, World as Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal, ‘to truly perceive all life as interconnected challenges many of our most automatic assumptions about what we are and what we need’ (Macy 2007).

What are your thoughts on this?

1 comment:

Julian said...

Great post. I've always believed that, 'rights' are very subjective. You ultimately have the right to be alive (unless your soul says otherwise). After that, everything else is dependent upon other variables.

I also believe that we need to adopt a bit more of the eastern version of, 'rights' as well, we might make a more less egoic species and more of a selfless community. Thanks for posting this