Rights and Duties — the old order and the new
The Western Democratic Tradition by LJM Cooray (1985)

The old democratic tradition order places emphasis on duties. The reformist ideas which became influential in the 20th century emphasised the imbalance of rights.

All religions emphasise the importance of duties and responsibilities as distinct from rights. The Ten Commandments are duties. There is an emphasis on rights to the near exclusion of duties and responsibilities in modern society. There is a grave danger in the push towards legislative recognition of subjective rights (so-called) in response to the demands of politically influential pressure groups.

A duty-centred society is preferable to a right-centred society. If individuals are concerned about their duties, responsibilities and obligations, they cannot but be concerned about the rights, needs and freedom of others.

A right-centred society is one in which individuals assert their rights. People are encouraged by individuals, organisations and government departments and instrumentalities to demand rights, with no consideration for the effect of those demands on other people.

Governments and pressure groups which focus on rights give no thought to how rights can operate in the absence of a climate in which the importance of duties is emphasised. By comparison a duty-conscious society gives rise to respect for rights.

There is no end to the so-called rights which can be demanded. A right-conscious society in effect recognises a few rights (neglects many others). The rights that are recognised are often those which are demanded by the powerful, the aggressive and the nasty. There cannot be a right without a duty. An endless cacophony of demands by academic theorists and interest groups for rights has become a dominant feature of the modern democratic State (fed by legislation encouraging these demands). At the same time there is a deafening silence on the question of individual responsibility.

History has continually demonstrated that the greatest of civilisations decline and fall when they succumb to indulgence at the expense of discipline and endeavour. The fate of Egyptian and Roman civilisations are prime examples. It is not too late for Western civilisation to heed the supreme lesson of human experience.

Rights were important in western society. But these were rights which protected men from the powers of government - rights of property, free speech and personal freedom.

There are many different types of rights - and these can broadly be categorised by (i) the traditional fundamental freedoms or rights and (ii) the new socio-economic rights or welfare rights.

It is important to recognise that there is a real tension between the traditional rights of freedoms and the new socio-economic welfare rights. The more important fundamental rights may be said to include the rights of each individual to:

Important Fundamental Rights
freedom of speech and expression
freedom from arrest or detention (except under authority of law)
freedom from cruel, inhumane or degrading punishments and the right to a fair trial by a competent and independent court
freedom to enjoy lawfully acquired property
equality of persons before the law
freedom of assembly and association (including public meeting and withdrawal of labour)
freedom of thought, conscience and religion
freedom of contract
freedom to engage in a trade, profession or occupation
freedom of movement within a nation and across national borders
freedom of trade and commerce.

Social welfare rights are fundamentally different in character. Among topics which are placed in this category are alleged duties of the state:

Social Welfare Rights
to secure full employment for all people of working age
to provide adequate standards of living and education to all citizens
to rapidly develop the country
to distribute the social product equitably
to eliminate economic and social privilege and disparity
to ensure social security and welfare
to protect the environment
to safeguard the independence, sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of the country
to promote international peace and co-operation.

The important dimension is that the classical freedoms involve a demand by the individual to be protected from the overreaching and unreasonable use of law and government. It is a demand by individuals to be protected from government power. That is all the individual demands. The social welfare rights involve demands by the individuals and groups to obtain benefits from law and government. This in turn requires governments to take positive action involving use of taxpayers' money and other discriminatory actions and procedures, to benefit some individuals in society at the expense of others. Anti-discrimination (so called) policies inevitably involve discrimination. The traditional rights require no action by governments — welfare requires positive action by governments which have negative effects on others.

The classical liberties have a long tradition in western political thought and political action. Their influence enabled European societies and societies dominated by European immigrants in other parts of the world, to establish democratic institutions and breakdown the power and influence of feudalism, totalitarianism and authoritarianism.