What happens when everyone is convinced they have rights, but abjure responsibilities?

Image credit: Freedom Food

The philosopher Timothy Scanlon wrote a book several decades ago in which he elaborated a philosophical position known as contractualism, the core of which is the question of what we owe to each other. As anyone who’s watched the Netflix series The Good Place will know, the question has even made its way into popular culture.

Fortunately, this article isn’t going to be about abstract philosophical musings. Instead, we’re going to focus on the everyday pragmatic issues that are essential for social cohesion.

Aside from a few sad little anarchists who pretend life would be better if we had no rules, no structures, and no generally accepted values, most of us vaguely understand that we’d be dead within a few hours unless civilization was there to provide the cocoon within which we can go about our daily lives.

Unfortunately, civilization is wafer-thin and far more vulnerable than most people realize. Today Western civilization is in its closing phase. This article will look at the various forces that are tearing our societies apart and which ultimately will lead to the widespread establishment of tyranny as the only alternative to absolute social collapse.

Interestingly, a great many of these forces all stem from the same root:

We all scream loudly for ever-more rights, but we all want to walk away from any concept of personal responsibility.

While Adam Smith was absolutely correct that a regulated free market is far better at allocating resources than any centrally-planned economy can ever be, he wrote The Wealth of Nations early in the development of a more market-oriented society. What he could not foresee, therefore, was that a relentless focus on the consumer would inevitably result in a society in which endless consumption is seen as the predominant factor.

Over time, we all become more child-like. We want and expect more of everything: more toys, more clothes, more food. Our metaphorical mouths are perpetually open, seeking instant gratification and fussing when we have to wait for anything. We come to expect things as our due and are very unhappy whenever reality disobliges us.

On the right, fat old white people are clamoring for a return to “the good old days” when people with darker skins knew their place and white men didn’t need a fancy education in order to get a decently-paying job. A time when women stayed at home, had a drink ready for hubby when he came back, and had plenty of babies.

On the left, hysterical activists are clamoring for a wide variety of mutually-contradictory rights for the most obscure edge-cases and eviscerating each other for being insufficiently Politically Correct. Everyone deserves everything, right now, and if you don’t agree then you’re a fascist patriarchialist traitor to the progressive cause.

What’s missing from all sides is the understanding that if we all take, there’s no one to give. Everyone seems to be involved in a zero-sum game of grasping and pulling and screaming and having temper-tantrums. Few seem to recognize that we all live together and if we can’t find constructive ways to do so then the future is very bleak indeed.

The reason for all of this infantile behavior is, I believe, because consumer societies stress consumption. We want to consume rights in the same way as we consume donuts and fidget spinners.

But that’s not how society works.

With rights need to come responsibilities also. Let’s run a simple thought experiment to see why this is necessarily so.

Jane and Tom want to have a child. They’ve seen pictures of happy families in glossy magazines and they’ve watched re-runs of The Brady Bunch and they’re convinced it’s their right to have a baby. So they procreate. The baby arrives. But neither Jane nor Tom wants to give up all the things they like to do in their free time, so they don’t take responsibility for looking after the baby. Not surprisingly, it dies. Well, someone must be to blame! Whose fault was it? Surely it was the fault of the hospital for letting them take the baby home. Surely it was the fault of social services for not coming to feed and change the baby’s diapers every day. Surely it was the fault of the neighbors for not coming to take care of things when the baby was screaming. We can be sure, however, that it most definitely was not Jane and Tom’s fault, because they had the inalienable right to have the baby!

Let’s move from this somewhat alarming thought experiment into real life. Today, 86% of US citizens are overweight. The net result is nearly one trillion dollars in excess health care expenditures resulting from weight-related diseases: emphysema, cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes, bone fractures, various cancers, and a wide variety of other problems too long to list here.

Every fat person is convinced of two things. The first is their absolute right to eat whatever they want, without consequences. The second is their absolute conviction that it’s not their fault they are overweight. It’s genetics, a rare disease, an endocrine imbalance, the inability to afford fresh vegetables, childhood trauma, and a never-ending list of other reasons why really truly it’s absolutely not their fault in any way.

So society as a whole bears the cost.

When fat old white people vote for politicians who pander to religionist nonsense by making adequate sexual education unavailable and by closing down family planning clinics, the result is an inevitable rise in unwanted pregnancies that always then results in an increase in crime as those unwanted children reach adolescence.

So society as a whole bears the cost.

When so-called progressives ensure that whole sectors of academia are muted in order to avoid hurting the feelings of the overly-delicate, a generation is lost. The USA hardly has an abundance of well-educated citizens; reducing the already-small number means that… society as a whole bears the cost.

The reader is invited to think of their own examples. There’s no shortage.

Our fundamental problem is that we’ve forgotten that rights have to be paired to responsibilities otherwise society is like a supermarket where everyone goes to take things off the shelves but no one is responsible for replacing those things.

If we choose to have babies, it’s our responsibility to take care of our children until they are old enough to take care of themselves.

It’s our responsibility to take exercise and moderate our consumption of foods so as not to impose a huge unnecessary cost on the health care system.

It’s our responsibility to refrain from seeking to promote policies that quite obviously will harm others.

As a social primate species we’re absolutely dependent on those around us and they are absolutely dependent on us.

What we owe to each other is behavior that is shaped by a realization that civilization is about reasonable compromise. If one group seeks to benefit at the expense of one or more other groups, that behavior is incompatible with civilization.

Today we’ve got everything upside down. Investment bankers impoverish hundreds of millions in order to walk home with multi-million dollar bonuses. Corporations fill supermarket shelves with slop that makes those who eat it sick. Republicans vote for repugnant policies that are reminiscent of those formerly associated with Stalin and Hitler. Progressives scream for absurd policies that result in a state of perpetual incoherence.

I’m not optimistic that we can turn things around. But for our descendants who live through the horrors to come, the message is clear: civilization itself depends on maintaining a balance of rights and responsibilities. Only small children (of all ages) think otherwise.

It’s what we owe to each other that really matters.

Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.

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