Thursday, May 13, 2010

Rights and Restrictions. . . .

Lately I have heard a lot of talk about "rights" in political discourse. This is probably just a coincidence rather than a trend, but it is a coincidence that gets one thinking about these issues. What has struck me is the remarkable ignorance of many people and the politicization of the issue by many others.

I don't think one needs to be a legal expert to understand the issue of political rights, particularly at a basic abstract level. One needs only to be familiar with the basic history or the development of Western democracies since the Enlightenment.

One of the occasions that came up in the past couple days was a letter to CBC's The Current over their recent discussion of the resurgence of the Christian Right in Canada. Some evangelical wrote a letter complaining about "liberally" minded people who themselves complain about Christians 'imposing' their beliefs on other people in society. This Christian letter-writer said that they were fed up with liberals who suggest that when Christian's promote their values it is an 'imposition' of the values on others while the liberal values are portrayed by them as somehow 'value neutral.' And predictably the Christian used the example of Gay Marriage as being a value that was being imposed on others by liberals and Homosexuals.

Now I am not really sure if it is ignorance or just politics at work here. Does this Evangelical Christian really not understand the difference? I am beginning to think that there are many out there that are just so incapable of simple reasoning that they really believe this stuff. This ignorant Christian letter-writer just doesn't understand the difference between 'rights' and 'restrictions.' A right is something you can chose to take advantage of or not. A restriction is something that limits your choice. Thus 'rights' do not impose values on people, rather they open an option for people to make certain choices. Gay marriage is such a right. It doesn't imposes gay values on anyone, it gives Gay people the right to live by their values. However, when Christians seek to restrict women's availability to safe, legal abortions, they are trying to restrict the actions of others and compel them to live by certain Christian values. (Smarter Christians have naturally picked up on this distinction and begun to argue for the 'rights' of the so-called 'un-born')

Of course, our society has many legal restrictions and these impose, in a de facto sense, values on people. But in keeping with the basic principles of Western democracies, these restrictions are mostly intended to stop people from doing things that have a direct and detrimental impact on others.I am not arguing here about the rightness or wrongness or the system per se, simply pointing out that this is generally the way it is intended to work.

When Christians seek to restrict the right of Gay Marriage they are directly imposing their values on others. When Gay people (or other supporters) seek to bestow the right for Gay people to marry, they impose their values on no one because if my Gay neighbors marry their actions have no direct and detrimental impact on me.

Thus, what many Christian advocacy groups appear not to understand is that 'rights' groups like thoses that support Gay Marriage, generally are working to extend rights to people that grow out of the fundamental principles in the Constitution and Charter of rights. Christian groups, on the other hand, are usually (but not in all cases), seeking to create laws and restrictions that reflect their values which they claim flow from external religious documents which many of us simply do no believe in.

Tomorrow I will address the way the right-wing talks about 'victim's rights.'


Anonymous said...

I more-or-less agree with you.

Do you feel that the fundamentals in the Constitution and Charter are complete in their articulation? Do they provide a comprehensive enough base from which to expand liberty evermore? Legalizing euthanasia for instance.


kirbycairo said...

Dear Leo

Thank you for your comment. The word 'complete' in relation to a constitutional document is, I believe, problematic. There must always be room for maneuver. For example a future government could bestow legal rights to the so-called unborn and then the Supreme Court would have to weigh the rights of women to control their bodies against the rights of their un-born children. Constitutionalism often requires such a balancing act concerning the degree to which certain rights might impact on others.

Although a constitution is intended in a sense to be an open ended document most written constitutions today (like the French, the American, and the Canadian) are surely limited in their scope but they could continually address certain rights issues because the question is almost always within the same structure; weighing the 'right' to do something against the possible impact on others, or addressing whether someone's basic rights are being in some way obstructed. But this could not, I think, mean that liberties could 'expand evermore' within the context of contemporary constitutions.

Such a question would only be meaningful if constitutions began to recognize broader rights such as the right to a certain share of social wealth. But I am not sure that constitutions can function very successfully in the so-called 'positive rights' arena. Although I could imagine a future constitution attempting to protect future generations through, say, environmental principles.

As for legalizing euthanasia, it depends entirely what you mean by that term. I think a constitution could protect the right to assisted suicide but it could not be used to protect a person's right to euthanize another person, this would be non-senseical.