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  • Writer's pictureH. Paul Putman III, MD

The Survival Pledge 6: "Rights" and Wrongs

(The Survival Pledge is an eight-point plan to refocus each of us on taking responsibility for our own thoughts and behaviors in ways that benefit ourselves and others, supporting peace and non-violence.)

I will not confuse “rights” or legislated privileges with wishes and desires that may well impinge upon another person’s freedom.

In 1985 The Coca-Cola Company introduced New Coke, a beverage product with a new recipe. It was not universally popular, especially in the southern United States, and might be defined as a big mistake on the part of the multinational company (though eventually the sales of the classic Coca-Cola recipe climbed above that of rivals).[1],[2] What is most intriguing is not so much why so much of the public rejected this new product, but how it responded to the lost opportunity to purchase the previous version. Many people called publicly for a return to the “classic” Coke recipe, often actually claiming that they had a right to drink it. They asserted this desire as a right, the claim of which they felt superseded the right of the people in The Coca Cola Company to choose to not make Coca-Cola classic.

This is one clear example of how the American public, at least, has expanded the definition of a right to the point that it has lost all perspective and much meaning. It illustrates how our contemporary use of the term puts rights in the most self-centered, egocentric context, blurring the distinction among rights, desires, wishes, goals, hopes, strategies and freedoms.

Historically, individual rights are a relatively new concept. During the Eighteenth-Century Enlightenment, John Locke wrote of the concept of individual freedom that met a boundary only when that freedom intruded on the freedom of another individual.[3] We speak often of the right to vote in a democratic society. Framers of The Constitution of the United States of America[4],[5] struggled with the boundary between states’ rights and federal government rights.[6] Norman Rockwell illustrated[7] Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms: of speech and expression, of religion, from want and from fear.[8] Others have claimed the right to a good education, the right to universal health care, the right to earn a living wage, the right to clean drinking water, and to own a home.

The United Nations (UN) Assembly in 1948 adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR),[9] with input from fifty-eight nations in the aftermath of World War II. Its thirty articles include the right to work and days off with pay, to own property, belong to a nation, enjoy social security, marry and have a family, to fair and impartial hearings, to be innocent until proven guilty, to leisure, education and enjoyment of the arts and scientific advancement, to the development of the personality, food, clothing, housing, and medical care, to freedoms of thought, religion, assembly, expression and speech. It’s difficult to imagine many human desires not covered in this document. The mechanisms for ensuring that each human is provided with these “rights” or privileges are not covered, just the assertion that they can be claimed in each nation. In 1966 the UDHR was joined with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights[10] and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights[11] to become the International Bill of Human Rights,[12] ratified by the UN in 1976.

In listing these assertions of rights, a distinction between freedoms and privileges emerges. Some rights are defined or granted by authorities: the rights to marry, drive, vote, or own property, for example. Even when the authority is a democratic government, the boundaries on these activities are defined literally and clearly: age requirements for drinking alcohol, marriage, and driving, for example. No one in the United States has the right or freedom to vote before age 18, or in many states if they have been convicted of a felony or not registered in advance. Authorities often try to educate the public on their power by declaring that certain freedoms really are “privileges, not rights.” Admission to a competitive university or professional school is an example.

Privileges, not freedoms, are legislated or decreed, are not universal and are not to be assumed or taken for granted. Despite the extension of protections (through the rule of law) to all inhabitants within and by modern democratic civic states,[13] privileges are still granted mostly to citizens, and never have all human beings living under an authority been considered citizens; the definition of and criteria for citizenship is determined by government. Even the UDHR concludes “These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.”[8] This disclaimer illustrates how “rights,” even when they are asserted as natural, are legislated can be withdrawn by authorities.

Freedoms seem different. They are seen as innate or natural, as defined, though differently, by authors including Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.[14] The sensibility is that governments recognize, protect and honor them rather than create them. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were borrowed from Locke[2] and asserted by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence[15] as prima facie freedoms that good, deserving governments would allow to all citizens. At this writing the People’s Republic of China (referred to here as China) also claims to recognize the freedom if its citizens, but views what these freedoms should be very differently than western democracies do. China asserts the right and responsibility of its citizens to support the state over the individual, for the good of the individual, and has a very different view of free speech. Freedoms are recognized but, despite the ratification of International Bill of Human Rights by a sufficient number of UN member nations, there is no universal agreement on what they are or how they can be protected.

The last half of the previous century became quite concerned with the concept of human rights. Following two world wars, the International Bill of Human Rights, the New Frontier, and the Great Society appeared.[16] While many aspects of these US domestic initiatives centered on economic policy and programs, they also focused on expansion of political and societal rights for women, minorities, and (at least in theory) the poor. Governments can be the ultimate guardian of our freedoms, defining, legislating and enforcing them. Thomas Hobbes’ seventeenth century Leviathan[17] postulated that a strong central authority was essential to prevent an “all against all” war than precluded mutual cooperation and therefore opportunity for the individual.

Freedoms, though, as defined by governments, will vary with the government and its own goals and desires over time. Though individuals and other groups may assert or claim rights as freedoms, it is necessary for governments to recognize and ratify these claims for them to be “guaranteed.” Even then, governments and their strategies and priorities change, and with them, rights and freedoms. And, of course, there are currently around 200 national governments on our planet, in addition to the subdivisions within each national government.[18] There is never an ongoing consensus on rights and freedoms even in one cross-section of time, so that one’s recognized or protected rights often depend on timing and location rather than innate, natural and universal rights.

Let us not confuse rights, then, with wishes and desires – rather, let us carefully evaluate them. Let us understand that one person’s assertion of a “right” may well impinge upon another person’s freedom. Let us not assume that any right will be granted to us or sustained by the humans who form our government or coexist in our societies. Let us also understand that the claim of a natural right may be a tool for obtaining a freedom within our government and among our fellow human beings. Let us listen to and respect, then, others undertaking such actions; we may someday require a similar process for ourselves.

I will not confuse “rights” or legislated privileges with wishes and desires that may well impinge upon another person’s freedom.

[1] The Story of One of the Most Memorable Marketing Blunders Ever: The History of New Coke. The Coca-Cola Company web site. Accessed October 20, 2021. [2] “Topics; Cars and Cola Jokes.” The New York Times. Published October 23, 1985. Accessed October 22, 2021. [3] John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, ed. Thomas Hollis (London: A. Millar et al., 1764). [4] The Constitution of the United States: A Transcription. The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration Web site. Accessed October 21, 2021. [5] Constitution of the United States of America (1787). Bill of Rights Institute Web site. Accessed October 21, 2021. [6] Dave Roos. When the Founding Fathers Settled States' vs. Federal Rights—And Saved the Nation. History Web site. A&E Television Networks, LLC. Published April 16, 2020. Updated April 30, 2020. Accessed October 21, 2021. [7] Norman Rockwell. Four Freedoms. Custom Prints, Norman Rockwell Museum Web site. Accessed October 21, 2021. [8] Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Annual Address to Congress, delivered January 6, 1941. Our Documents: Four Freedoms. FDR Library Home page. Accessed October 21, 2021. [9] Universal Declaration of Human Rights. United Nations Web site. Accessed October 21, 2021. [10] International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Office of the High Commissioner, Human Rights. United Nations web site. Accessed October 21, 2021. [11] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Office of the High Commissioner, Human Rights. United Nations Web site. Accessed October 21, 2021. [12] Fact Sheet No.2 (Rev.1), The International Bill of Human Rights. Printed at United Nations, Geneva, June 1996. Accessed October 21, 2021. [13] Feliks Gross, Citizenship and Ethnicity: The Growth and Development of a Democratic Multiethnic Institution (Westport, CT, USA: Greenwood Press, 1999). [14] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, A Discourse on Inequality, trans. Maurice Cranston (London: Penguin Books, 1984). [15] Thomas Jefferson. The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America. Declaration of Independence: A Transcription. The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration Web site. Accessed October 21, 2021. [16] Chapter 6: Eras of the New Frontier and the Great Society 1961-1969. U.S. Department of Labor Web site. Accessed October 21, 2021. [17] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651. (Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg) Retrieved October 21, 2021, from [18] Vasabjit Banerjee. How many states and provinces are in the world? The Conversation Web site. Published April 12, 2021. Accessed October 21, 2021.


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