TED Conversations

David Saia

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What is the difference to culture if, instead of promoting rights and entitlements, we enforced duties and obligations to each other.

We are constantly hearing about our rights- our right to privacy, our right to property, our right to education, our right to the pursuit of happiness . . . . These rights are then codified by laws and we use courts to enforce penalties based on a violation of rights.

What if we reversed the process and talked about duties? We do it in small ways- we have a duty to raise and protect our children, we have a duty to make our properties safe, to name two examples. But what if we had a duty to educate our children, a duty to care and help support our neighbors, a duty to respect another's religion or creed or sexual preference, a duty to love and be faithful to our families, a duty to be honest and forthright in business?

Some may say this is the other side of the same coin, but I don't think that is the whole issue. Thinking of ourselves as entitled to something and in possession of certain idealistic "rights" we shift the burden of responsibility away from the individual and the community and relegate the enforcement of these rights to another- usually a governing body. This allows a person devoid of morals to still yell about what they are somehow owed, never being able to touch what most would assert is a proper way to live based on particular cultural norms and customs.

The former has the potential, it seems to me, of reducing our communities and cultures to a collection of disconnected individuals, while the latter enforces a cultural identity and unity. Further, the former invites organizations- be they governments or corporations- to provide what we claim as entitlements as we go off and live our lives without responsibility or concern beyond our immediate families, while the latter allows us to appreciate our crucial role as a part of a culture and a set of beliefs about how to live as part of a community larger than ourselves.

Picture a generation of children raised to feel duties to each other and their lands, would the world be better or worse?

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    Nov 15 2011: That said I think your ideas of instilling (or re-instilling) the duties of common man into values education and upbringing is a concept well worth developing - with much to gain.
  • Nov 15 2011: I think our (being Canada and USA) society is to young for duty and obligation. China and japan, along with the monarchy are all extreme examples of too much duty and obligation. This is a slow process, and these days will come when individuals can find value in others instead of fault, when people show there intentions through action instead of inaction.

    The other side of this is that there are people who do feel a duty to there country, and sometimes are given the wrong idea and become a suicidal bomber or another such atrocity.

    Therefore I return to my first point about our society being "to young". We have yet to develop concrete values that reflect our specific nation. Also our nations have not been tested through time, we have not solved that many problems and our countries in the west are relatively fragile. Built on electricity, and natural resource use. So this question raises many impossibilities to changing in one generation. All I can say is do your best with your own children, and give your grandchildren responsibilities and expectations to live up to your standards. Because all to often it is the grandparents the young people listen too, not the parents.
  • Nov 15 2011: Finally, I guess my point is that there is a huge difference between "empowering" people with rights they can pound their fists to enforce, and engendering children with the idea that they have a duty to each other and to the land and to their communities. The former empowers only bitterness while the latter enforces understanding, compassion, respect, and cultural identity. That seems clear, at least to me, from at minimum a psychological perspective. We can contribute a dollar to causes that seem correct, and then we feel better and go about our lives thinking we are making a difference - but do we teach our children why or show our children where the problem lies, or show them what it means to lead a good life . . . .?

    Hey, the US is young- we may still get there.
  • Nov 15 2011: Thank you for your response, Vivienne, but I respectfully disagree, at least in part. The Declaration of Human Right has done considerable harm in small and what we consider "poor" countries for there are many small societies that do not want outside intervention into the organization of their communities, and certainly don't want outsiders swooping in to tell them what they are doing wrong without appreciating the scope of their cultural depth and passion. Often, access to courts remove affected individuals from their communities and promote measures which are foreign or even culturally repugnant to indigenous peoples, as does modern education requirements or other standards we feel obliged to impose on cultures we do not understand. You cannot legislate cultural ideals, just restrict expression. Compared to the early efforts in this regard, we have made considerable progress, but adopting a law that will fix it is not, in my mind, the answer to the big issues. Question: did Ghandi want laws made to save and honor his people?

    Being a former attorney practicing in the areas of libel and medical malpractice law in the US, the lobbies that promote the "damage" these laws do to our economies have endless funds and endless desire to restrict them- and they largely have done so here. One can't ignore the profit incentive that organizations have to "do the right thing"- begging the question- right for whom and why? Again, by identifying "rights" we can legislate we are relying on others to do the heavy lifting instead of engendering the propagation of ideas that foster respect, kindness and the role of the family. The legal system relies on restriction and regulation to succeed, taking the individual out of the role of personal responsibility. By the way- our laws don't engender a "duty of care" as much as our "right to" a duty of care.
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    Nov 15 2011: You should check out Aldus Huxleys flipside to brave new world, The Island.
    • Nov 15 2011: Come on, Tim. Give me more than that. Don't wait to tell me until I catch up on my reading . . . .
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        Nov 15 2011: IT gives an interesting fictional account if utopia could be realized, how it would look. the people that make up this utopia established, among other things, an culture that established inherrited responsibiltys to themselves, and the community at a very young age. i think, if you had some down time, it would present and interesting perspective on what this topic presents. ALSO, in speaking of the currnet culture we are faced with today, it is completely against change (as most cultures are). it would take a lot more than promoting, presuation, or any other method of meme introduction to change such an beast.
        • Nov 15 2011: awesome perspective . . . . a great thing for fiction to flush out. Thanks, Tim.
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    Nov 15 2011: Do we not already have both? Through Universal Declaration of Human Rights we have formalised fundamental entitlements that individuals in human society can assert anywhere. Through the much evolved justice system based in 'common law' (from which other democratic legal systems are still derived) we have a fundamental tort - which is the Tort of 'Duty of Care'. Duty of Care identifies through case ruling and judge authority civil responsibility or duties to uphold the rights of individuals. Many torts are criminal as well as civil. It is noted that in many democratic countries - these torts have been 'replaced' by codified law, legislation - so as to minimise overburdened costs of a legal court system (and that punitive damages were becoming so high). Yet the root of the tort remains in the legislation and an individual is still entitled and able to seek remedy through tort where legislation is not covered or in some cases both tort and legislation are mutual and not exclusive. To me it is a degradation to the human rights of citizens in democratic countries that some torts are heavily legislated. I make this comment because a common law action although costly - is an opportunity for a legal decision based on individual case matter and not a blanket ruling that can often discriminate against an individuals personal and mitigating circumstances. On the flip side case law can progress the tort away from its original power. My specific example is US libel laws. Due to case rulings that have favoured the media or business concerns - individuals seeking libel tort of defamation are less likely to succeed. By contrast defamation has been codified in Australia and co-exists with common law tort - leaving a clear path for remedy and case rulings reflect the legal strength - individuals have a far greater potential to receive remedy.

    Back to the overall question - entitlements and duties are the inherent foundation block of our democratic legal justice system
  • Nov 15 2011: Brilliant insights, Charles. I ask the question because of a futuristic script I am developing in which we will be older and will have gone through more rude awakenings and see some of our failures more clearly- perhaps.

    Still, I am concerned that it is the emphasis on reliance of state and governments to provide those things that are traditionally cultural that is spinning us out of control. We say our rights were "endowed by our creator"- that is clearly an old world, 18th century view of our place in the universe, while older cultures appreciate self reliance. It is the overall framework of reliance on others that frightens me for our children. You are right, though, it must and always has begun at home.

    Something else to think about is the fact that our youth or our development seems to be accelerated greatly by technology. So is a 200 year old society in this century the same as a 500 year one in the first century? It feels like that is the case but I have nothing but instinct to support the feeling.

    Thanks again!
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    Nov 14 2011: There are two ways of enforcing duty. One is cultural and is difficult or slow to achieve because it requires a high degree of consensus round the change. The second one is bureaucratic, and the one common feature of all bureaucratic organisations is that they very quickly diverge from their original purpose and find reasons to create and impose totally unnecessary rules and regulations on others while avoiding taking on any accountability.

    So while no society can operate effectively unless there is a balance between rights and responsibilities, once that balance is lost it takes a substantial cultural change to get it back.
    • Nov 14 2011: Exactly. We in the west may never be able to make the change at this point. Even if we tried on a small scale somewhere the government would assume we were hoarding guns or subversive in nature and want to come in to tell us what is wrong with us. We are part of a very arrogant culture in general Though as soon as we see poor people somewhere in the world we assume they want or need to be like us, and when we try to help it almost always reeks havoc on their people, lands and cultures, largely because we would not lift a finger if there wasn't a profit potential to spread our products to new markets.