Rights and Responsibilities: A Balancing Challenge

by Manuel B. Quintal, Esq.

Too often, people primarily care about rights as humans and citizens. Too often, we forget or ignore that we, as members of an organized human society, have obligations and responsibilities not only to the government, but most importantly to fellow members of our community. The relationships between the government and the people, and between and among the people themselves, had been likened to a contract, a social contract. Like all contracts, each of the parties thereto derives certain benefits and assumes certain responsibilities.

Our system of government was designed and intended to guarantee freedoms and rights to citizens, but it also imposes responsibilities to the citizens to make the system work. Benjamin Franklin, one of the pre-eminent members of the Continental Congress that drafted the United States Constitution, is said to have been asked by a concerned citizen the following question: “What have you given us, Dr. Franklin?” His answer, succinct, with a challenge pregnant with hope and expectations, was: “A republican government, if you can keep it.”

“Our system of government was designed and intended to guarantee freedoms and rights to citizens, but it also imposes responsibilities to the citizens to make the system work.”

The Founding Fathers adopted a constitution that laid the framework for a republican government – that government of representatives freely chosen by the people, and who were expected to serve the welfare of the people. It is a government that Abraham Lincoln described “four score and seven years “later as a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

The nationwide (and international) social upheaval brought about by race-based inequality and the coronavirus pandemic had, and continues to display, how the government leaders, the people, or many people, justify their actions and reactions. It shows the constantly changing interaction, maybe conflict, between claimants of the rights and those who remind them of their responsibilities. The governments do what they claim are intended to “protect national security”, “control the pandemic”, “prevent the spread of the virus”, “prevent terrorism”, “promote public health”, or “promote public safety.” All those actions, in varying degrees, necessarily result to limitations on the freedoms and rights that individuals naturally value and resolutely want to protect. While most people choose to be silent and accept the limitations on their rights as temporary and even necessary and justified by the current social and political climate, others occupy the streets and march to dramatically and emotionally manifest their opposition, discontent, abhorrence of the social and economic system, and their perceived immediate need for change and transformation.

“Clearly there is no definite boundary defining where those rights ends and their responsibilities begin. The people tend to push the limitations of their rights and extend and expand the parameters of those rights.”

Clearly there is no definite boundary defining where those rights ends and their responsibilities begin. The people tend to push the limitations of their rights and extend and expand the parameters of those rights. At the same time, government efforts to perform what it considers as its inherent duty — to promote the “common good” — are viewed variously as overly restrictive, unjustified, inappropriate, or simply an overreaction to the situation.

The maintenance of government, republican government, depends on the ability of the people, the citizens, to maintain it. What government does, which direction it needs to go, and which policies will promote what is good for all of us, or, at least the majority of us, depends on how we exercise our rights and perform our responsibilities. We can exercise and protect our precious individual rights without forgetting, disregarding, or violating and injuring the equally-precious rights of others, and or ignoring, violating, or violently reacting to every government policy that, if calmly approached, may in fact be the practical and straight-forward action required to solve a particular problem, and ultimately redound to the benefit of all, or most of us.

“The balancing of the rights and the responsibilities is always a daunting task. A desirable calculated dose of temperance is practicable.”

It will be best for all those truly concerned with how our communities or countries move forward to rationally accept and subscribe to the truth that for every right we have, there is a corresponding responsibility. And then, act and perform accordingly. This is not to say that we shall keep our silence amidst government misconduct. How proportionate is the responsibility to the rights we claim? Are we rational and responsible enough to temper our human proclivity to insist and pursue and expand the bounds of our rights for so long as we can escape our responsibility?

The balancing of the rights and the responsibilities is always a daunting task. A desirable calculated dose of temperance is practicable. The challenge continues.

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