The demand for a previously unacknowledged right – the right to have something, to do something, to be something – sets up an adversarial relationship. It pits victims (those whose right allegedly is being infringed) against those who might feel that the granting of that right might infringe on their own rights – on the most basic level, for example, the right to one’s own prejudices. On the other hand, the enjoining of a previously unacknowledged obligation – the obligation to give something, to allow something, to recognize something – might meet with resistance, sure, but it does not set one group against another in the way that a demand for a right does. The promulgation of an obligation pits the presumably more virtuous against the purportedly less virtuous. That is quite a different kind of confrontation, in which the parameters of charity, humanity, the social contract are the bones of contention, not a material benefit such as a parking space near the supermarket entrance, a better chance of getting admitted to college, a larger share of the payroll thanks to a gender-neutral salary schedule.
Historically, it is the obligation-based reform movements which have been the most successful. Abolitionism was based less on the rights of slaves to be free than on the moral repugnancy of slavery. Whatever lasting successes the civil rights movement has won over the last fifty years have come about not because the nation was overwhelmed by the agitation for equal rights, but because of our shame that those rights had not been granted.
I believe a deep analysis of white America’s reaction to Martin Luther King would disclose that what he brought out in us was less a militancy for equal rights than an embarrassment that we, as Americans, were not living up to the standards we professed. The actions of those civil rights pioneers, Rosa Parks and the Greensboro Four, were basically absurd if looked at in terms of demands for rights. What blessed difference does it make where one sits on a bus or where one has lunch? But it was their very absurdity that pointed up the pettiness of a society that stooped to dictate such silly things. They focused the nation not on rights, but on obligations.
Lately the sense of national obligation has weakened and some gains in civil rights are faltering. Why should my white child give up a place in college to another child who is similarly qualified simply because the other child is black? When looked at as a question of rights – my child’s rights vs. the black child’s rights – my concern is justifiable. After all, what does equal rights mean if not just that: equal rights. If looked at as a question of obligation, the problem becomes quite different. I might argue that now, in the 21st century, that obligation has been fulfilled – after all, we have a black president. Someone advocating continuing affirmative action might argue that black children continue to suffer disadvantages stemming from discrimination and thus we still have an obligation to boost their opportunities. Our disagreement over our obligations, rather than their rights, would not be based on what the children deserve, but on what our moral precepts call for; we would be arguing not as parents or stand-ins for parents, but as citizens; the issue would not be individual rights, but what was right and what was wrong.
The next time a right-winger begins to bray about lazy free-loaders who feel they are entitled to live off public money, instead of arguing about whether or not welfare recipients are lazy free-loaders – and, let’s face it, the proportion of lazy free-loaders among the poor is probably just as high as that of lazy free-loaders among the one per-cent – turn the argument around. The question should be: do you feel comfortable allowing fellow human beings to starve, homeless and neglected, simply because in your estimation many of them are lazy? Probably that would not be the end of the discussion. The right-winger who recognizes his humane obligations might argue that charity should come from private philanthropies and not public funds. But the tone of the argument will have changed from vituperative and defensive to practical. The question would be: how can the country best fulfill an obligation which we both acknowledge?
I realize that we are governed today by persons for whom such abstractions as “rights” and “obligations” are simply markers moved around in a game to decide which players control the most money, and the question I’m raising could have no practical effect whatsoever in the United States of 2013. Someday, however, that will end. The plutocrats will be kicked out and real liberals and real conservatives again will be trying to thrash out a real governance. More stress on our obligations, rather than our rights, could make that process easier and, ultimately, more progressive.