Rights Gone Wrong


Rights are all well and good, but sometimes they lead you to the wrong places. Generally I’m with John Stuart Mill:

“Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.”

That’s the classic case for ‘negative liberty’ – i.e. freedom from interference if you’re doing no harm. And it has travelled time well; Governments: know your limits. But what Mill says before this is important too:

“The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.”

And it’s this innocuous final phrase which is the tricky one: ‘impeding their efforts to obtain it.’ Does ‘impeding’ include dodging your taxes, turning a blind eye to inequality or using ‘rights’ to justify a bad status quo? As Mill said:

“A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury.”

Not that he was a pacifist:

“War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things; the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse.”

“A man who has nothing which he cares more about than his personal safety is a miserable creature who has no chance at being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.”

But as America reels from another terrible school shooting, with the prospect that the 2nd Amendment will be wheeled out again to justify inaction, surely historic rights are causing contemporary wrong.

Times change. It’s the 21st century not 1791. Give Governments too many powers and they abuse them. Give citizens guns and they do too. Two wrongs don’t make a right in a modern democracy.

I can’t help quoting Mill one more time:

“I never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid. I meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative.”

Surely it’s time for change on the right to bear arms.

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