Wronged by Our Rights

By Theodore Dalrymple
April 27, 2004

People who stand on their rights are seldom much concerned with the rights of others. There is no logical reason why this should be so, but it is a fact of human psychology. ‘It’s my right!’ is a call not of freedom, but of egotism.

Of course, we all want to live in a society in which certain rights are respected. The right of free speech, the right to a fair trial if accused, freedom from arbitrary arrest, and so forth: to these we can all assent without worrying too much about the metaphysical nature of rights, whether they derive from God, from human nature, or from mere historical and legal convention.

There is little doubt, however, that the idea of rights has expanded dramatically in the last few years, so that no sphere of human existence is left untouched by them. This expansion is the end product of decades of what one might call resentment studies: the academic view of the human past and present as nothing but oppression, of minorities by majorities and of majorities by minorities. The only protection from such oppression is formal legislation. No dissatisfied person or complainant now fails to mention the violation of his rights, which makes him doubly aggrieved.

The principal beneficiaries have been the lawyers, rather than those to whom the supposed rights have been granted, or those who believe (or have been persuaded) that they possess them. Negative rights — the absence of formal legal prohibitions — have been replaced by substantive rights. For example, it was once the case that a woman’s right to bear a child if she so wished meant that no one had the right to forbid or prevent her from having a child; now it means the right to in vitro fertilisation on the same basis as any or every other woman, irrespective of her personal character or habits.

This expansion of rights has led to both a paralysis of the public service and to a rapid and terrible deterioration in the character of the population — not of everyone, of course, but of substantial numbers of people.

It is easy to see why. Once something is declared or believed to be a right, it carries with it a metaphysical connotation of inalienability. This again is a matter of psychology rather than of philosophy or logic, but it is so and likely to remain so. Thus, by definition in the minds of many, a right imposes not duties, for if it did, it would not be a right. Rights are unconditional; and even if they were granted by Parliament they cannot be abrogated.

A right to health care means that the patient — or should I say customer? — is under no obligation to behave reasonably towards those who provide it. Nothing he does can deprive him of his rights. If, as a result of his own ill-conduct, he doesn’t get what he thinks he needs, he believes his rights to have been violated.

The idea of rights to tangible benefits sets up a deeply unattractive and psychologically damaging dialectic between ingratitude on the one hand and grievance and resentment on the other. If you receive what you believe yourself entitled to, you are not grateful, precisely because you were entitled to it in the first place. If, on the other hand, you do not receive what you believe yourself entitled to, you are doubly aggrieved, first at not receiving what you want, and second at the violation of your supposed right to it.

Moreover, it is quite clear that the extension of rights has the effect, and no doubt the intention, of turning the population into a rabble of dependants and petitioners. It extends the power of bureaucrats, adjudicators of rights and lawyers over the rest of society. If you believe yourself entitled by rights to something that you do not receive, what do you do? You spend your time and energy seeking redress from the very people who have failed you in the first place, rather than seeking a constructive solution for yourself. Your independence is sapped, which is precisely what a state dominated by lawyers and administrators wants. And so you are enticed into the administrative labyrinth, from which you will never emerge.

Considerations of people’s supposed rights often paralyse sensible action. They preclude kindness and common sense. Let me give an example from the prison. On human rights grounds, it is forbidden to treat psychiatrically disturbed patients against their will in prison, except under dire emergency. Thanks to the brilliant brains of the Department of Health, moreover, prison is the new psychiatric hospital, the DoH-induced shortage of hospital beds meaning that prison is the only place for the most acutely disturbed.

As any visitor to 18th-century Bedlam could have told you, untreated psychiatric patients are often very noisy. Prison is, as a matter of fact that we are not going to change, the kind of institution in which noise is magnified by echoes and reverberations.

In the name of human rights, therefore, one untreated and noisy psychiatric patient may keep scores of other prisoners awake night after night by his constant shouting and banging, and there is nothing anyone can do about it. Why not send him to hospital, you may ask? Because there are no hospital beds. And so, in the name of an abstraction so beloved of our intellectual classes, many people suffer quite unnecessarily, and even the person allegedly being protected by the observance of his rights is denied the treatment that he needs.

Considerations of rights, which are deemed by much of the population to be inalienable, unconditional and metaphysically unassailable, drive out considerations of kindness, decency, tolerance, mutual obligation and so forth: all the considerations, in fact, that make civilised or dignified existence in a crowded society possible. Everyone becomes an atom of an inert gas in a vacuum, whose rights act as physical forces to prevent him from combining sociably with other such atoms.

Thus a man in a tower block believes he has a right to play his music at all hours of the day and night; his neighbour, on the other hand, believes he has a right to peace and quiet. How is this conflict between two absolute but opposite rights resolved? Trial by baseball bat, since the vaunted protections offered by the legal system do not exist in cases such as this. Hell hath no fury like a man who believes his rights are being violated.

The idea of human rights, then, when extended beyond a few very general and negative rights, does not liberate us; it turns us into feral egotists who are at the same time dependent. This effect can be seen in our schools, where children do as they please because, with the native cunning of youth, they have realised the permissive possibilities inherent in the notion of their rights. I can only say how relieved I am that I shall not be around to see the full flowering of the human-rights culture in the years to come.

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