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The Paradox of “Rights”

by Izzy Kalman (June 2003)

Modern society is constantly fighting for more “rights.” We believe we are entitled to a life free from worry about food, shelter, education and health care. We believe we are entitled to be treated with respect by virtue of birth, without having to do anything to deserve respect. We are currently fighting for the right to have no one treat us in a way we don’t like.

But these rights don’t really bring us happiness. True, each additional right makes our lives easier because we no longer have to fight to get the benefit the right gives us. And it relieves us from the feeling that life is unfair because others have benefits that we don’t. But the pleasure is short-lived. We quickly take the right for granted and start becoming mad when the system fails to provide us with the goods or services that the right entitles us to. For instance, when kids are given the right not to be made fun of, someone has to enforce this right. The kids have to go to the teacher or principal whenever someone calls them a name, and if the school doesn’t succeed in solving the problem, which it usually doesn’t because telling adults makes fighting between kids escalate, then the kids and their parents become even angrier than they were before. They become angry not only at the kids who are doing the insulting, they become angry at the school for not granting them their rights.

And there is a never-ending list of rights that we can fight for. As soon as we obtain one, we start anxiously looking forward to the next one, and can’t be happy till that one is obtained for us. If you have ever known people who are busy fighting for their rights, you probably noticed that they are constantly angry and complaining, which is good for neither physical or emotional health. And after a while you want to get as far away from these people as possible.

Rights versus Resilience Another drawback to “rights” is that they take away the need for us to develop and use our personal skills. Part of the pleasure of life comes from the feeling of accomplishment of satisfying our own needs and developing our abilities. Children make it so obvious when the gleefully shout, “I did it all by myself!” A “right” means that someone else has to give us what we want rather than having to achieve it on our own. It deprives us of the opportunity to become self-reliant and resilient.

I am not suggesting that society take back the rights it has given us. The job of a strong society is to become increasingly fair and generous, to spread the wealth around to its individual members. All I am saying is that we should not confuse societal strength with individual strength. They do not always go together, and are sometimes opposed to each other. The very purpose of rights is to relieve individuals of the responsibility to work for the benefit granted by the right. We should keep in mind that the happiest and most resilient people in the world are not those with the most rights, but those with no rights at all, the people like Pygmies who are still hunter/gatherers living in nature. What we should do, though, is constantly appreciate our rights rather than take them for granted. Then we will be truly happy.

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