The UK riots: The idiocy of “rights talk” without “responsibility talk”

“You bloody Neroes, ripping up the womb
Of your dear mother England, blush for shame.”
-William Shakespeare, King John

Until recently, the British were admired for their personal qualities: a characteristic sense of fair play; emotional restraint and understatement; and stoicism in the face of great adversity.

But whatever else the recent riots in the U.K. may have revealed, none of these qualities were on display. What the world witnessed during the London riots was a mob of “bloody Neroes” without shame, dignity, or any kind of moral compass whatsoever.

As Great Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron remarked, “When we see children of 12 or 13 looting it’s clear there are things that are badly wrong in our society. There is a complete lack of responsibility in some parts of our society. People are allowed to feel the world owes them something and that their actions don’t have consequences.”

So what accounts for this new barbarism? What Cameron refers to as a “slow-motion moral collapse”?

There are, of course, a great many pathologies at work: chronic unemployment, the breakdown of the family, gangster culture, and the loosening of all social bonds, to name but a few.

But there has also been a radical alteration in Britain’s political culture. Over the past 40 years, the U.K, in concert with the other advanced democracies, has undergone a profound sea-change in its public morality. Great Britain has moved from a liberalism based on the greater good, to one predicated on the rights of the individual. In Canada, this change was made explicit with the arrival of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982. Yet even in jurisdictions without written constitutions such as the U.K., there has been an inexorable movement to frame all public debates about morality exclusively in terms of individual rights, what various commentators refer to as the “rights revolution.”

As Plato pointed out, changes in political arrangements bring with them profound transformations (for either good or ill) in the temperament and psychological makeup of a nation’s citizens. The contemporary fixation with rights creates certain expectations and patterns of thought which centre on individual needs. But individual rights need to be balanced by parallel responsibilities. Without this balance, irresponsibility becomes widespread, and a corrosive egoism contributes to the deterioration of community.

Rights-talk leads to an entitlement mentality. “Rights” have a protean ability to percolate into every area of discourse, notoriously conflating genuine moral rights (e.g. the right to liberty) with non-moral claims (e.g. the “right” not to be offended). The result is an ever-expanding wish-list of entitlements, along with the understanding that every concession gained from the state becomes an unalienable right.

This is precisely why the British philosopher and jurist Jeremy Bentham referred to human rights as “nonsense on stilts.” Bentham recognized that unless the concept of right was further tied to the concept of the good (something which liberal democracies balk at doing), then the concept of “human rights” can accommodate every human desire, every human fantasy, and every flight of the human imagination, no matter how frivolous, whimsical, or silly.

Like some hyper-active philosopher’s stone, rights talk has the capacity to transmute every human craving into a species of moral claim. For example, a bank advertises its services by proclaiming that, “You have the right to own your own home.” Similarly, the makers of a beauty soap assure their customers that, “You have a right to self-esteem.”

Notice how effortlessly the grammar of rights lends itself to this metamorphosis. Simply by asserting, “I have the right to …”, or “you have the right”, or “we have the right”, it is possible to couch any human aspiration in language which bewitches us into thinking we are dealing with a moral claim. Magically, common concerns and desires – no matter how mundane, or self-interested – become grave matters of principle and morality. Quite possibly, the London rioters felt they had a right to flat-screen televisions.

When we couch our claims in the categorical language of rights, we are seduced into thinking, and want others to think, that such claims are, like mathematical proofs, beyond question. This is why rights are so frequently asserted with a sort of puritanical moralizing — a register of speech corrosive of civil discourse.

To engage in serious moral conversations requires, at a minimum, the spirit of tolerance and goodwill. It further requires the ability to make nuanced distinctions in language. But tolerance and subtlety are the very qualities that rights-talk works to obscure and undermine, and which are so noticeably absent in discussions surrounding rights.

It is a simple logical truth that any morality which emphasizes individual rights must necessarily lead to a highly individualistic society, one which correspondingly undermines shared notions of community. The morality of individual rights is one in which responsibility – to our family and friends, to our broader community or the nation, or, indeed, to ourselves — can find little purchase, and so paves the way for the sort of mayhem we witnessed in London.

There will doubtless be enquiries into the “root causes” of the riots, and suggestions for halting the moral decay. Among the first tasks will be to return responsibility to the centre of a renewed public ethic. It is impossible to say what shape this new ethic will ultimately take. But it will require a more selfless, more tolerant, and more imaginative perspective in which to conceptualize the moral domain than rights-talk currently allows.

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