RIGHTS and FREEDOMS Long version
Many people have spoken about “inalienable rights”, that is, rights that cannot be taken away
from us. Others speak of “God-given” rights. Many years ago the United Nations issued a “Universal Bill of Rights”. There is also a European Convention on Human Rights, and much legislation in most countries explicitly or implicitly includes rights.
It would be virtually impossible to get world-wide agreement on what rights are inalienable.
Some countries disagree with some of the rights proclaimed by the United Nations in its Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
According to their national anthems, Australians are “young and free” and the USA is “the land of the free and the home of the brave”. According to the anthem Rule Britannia, which is not heard often in recent years, “Britons never, never, never shall be slaves”.
Political and social commentators have promoted a concept referred to as “the open society”. It is characterised by humanitarianism, equality and political freedom.
What are rights and freedoms?
In practice, a right is an entitlement to do or to be something, that is, to think believe, say, communicate or act in some particular way. Such an entitlement might be assumed, or implied, or formalised by the issue of a licence.
A right can also give some desired condition, such as being kept safe, being healthy, being provided with a place to live, and being treated with respect. Such a right would be given by a state, an organisation or person, or agreed in a document such as a contract .
A right could not be inalienable unless no power on Earth could prevent it. But there are some that most people regard to be very desirable.
Freedom has two aspects, freedom to do something and freedom from being subject to something. Freedom to do is the absence of prohibition to do or be something.
Freedom from something implies a right to be protected from it.
Because rights entail conditions and obligations, they need institutions to define, provide and maintain them. This involves a lot of social/political infrastructure. When this is inadequate, some rights are lost.
Some rights and freedoms have to be restrained so that people do not do things that would be contrary to other people’s rights and freedoms . This may require a hierarchy, in which some particular rights and freedoms may be denied when they adversely affect others’ particular rights.
Almost all rights and freedoms are subject to obligations, some of which are ambiguous or informal. Some people will find certain obligations to be onerous. Libertarians often claim that, on principle, there should be no obligations that require restrictions, particularly of speech. But, while speaking may not be prohibited, there will always be kinds of speech that will be prohibited or restricted.
Some people have specific rights because of their specialisations, such as police and security officers, professionals in health, law, engineering and other professions. These rights may be dependent on having specific qualifications, and may impose an obligation of professional conduct. In hierarchical structures, there are rights of rank and command.
People who are under some restriction associated with breaches of the law may be given rights, such the right to be silent. Specified members of temporary investigative organisations, such as royal commissions, are empowered to have access to relevant information that would otherwise be confidential.
Rights and freedoms can be controversial. There is often no clear coordination between the different authorising bodies. Then some obligations may cause conflict, confusion or controversy. Freedom of religion is one such case.
In these kinds of cases, the process of resolution can be a continuing debate.
A similar kind of controversy occurs where national laws override provincial laws and local laws, and when certain laws specifically override other laws. Sometimes the conflict is resolved through litigation, often comparing benefits and losses. This can be tricky when the parties have different sets of values.
The laws that provide entitlements and restrictions are often ambiguous, and therefore may be interpreted in different ways. Different authorities associated with the same set of rules may each have their own interpretation.
We usually assume that only humans know about rights and freedoms, and only humans can exercise or experience them. But human rights and freedoms are not only for individual people. Organisations of all kinds may have rights. Examples are the various levels of government, regulatory authorities, commercial companies, and religious institutions. These have distinctive rights and powers.
In cases where a medical procedure for a child is considered to be necessary or desirable, doctors or hospitals may sometimes claim the right to act against the wishes of parents. Parents may claim to have “natural” rights due to their status.
Some human rights and freedoms are restrained by social conditions, such as poverty, unemployment, biased and hostile human groups, danger and nuisance.
Wealthy people and people of high social rank are usually able to do things that other people are unable to do. People who are not citizens of the country they are living in often do not have some rights that the citizens have.
Some non-human species have rights and freedoms. Governments may give some domestic and wild animals the right to exist, and be to properly treated. Most species are not given these rights: we kill many animals, often cruelly, before their natural lifespan.
Pets may learn or be taught to do things under particular commands or circumstances. They may also discover or be taught what they must not do. With social animals in the wild, there may be an alpha male or female, with some privilege or right, and subordinate members that have obligations. The alpha male may be the only one to have “legitimate” sex with the females, and the alpha female may be the one that decides what the group will do.
Who gives rights and allows freedom?
There is considerable ambiguity as to who gives entitlement, and to whom, and also who imposes restrictions, and upon whom. This occurs within nations and internationally. There are multinational tribunals, such as the United Nations and the International Court, and multinational groups that agree to taking specific actions, such as addressing global warming and help for refugees, and agreeing to restrain from doing such things as obtaining nuclear weapons, and killing whales. Some countries do not participate in such agreements.
Local, state, national and international governments define rights and limitations to rights. They also impose restrictions and prohibitions.
Most religions prescribe duties, restrictions, and prohibitions. Any rights and duties they proclaim relate specifically to their membership. These rights and duties may be overridden by government laws. Some may be contrary to duties, restrictions and prohibitions of other religions.
Sometimes people talk about their “God-given” rights. There was a report of a person in the USA who claimed to have a “God-given” right to bear arms. Some people might regard such “rights” to override the law of the land, but the courts are unlikely to agree.
Many societies have informal codes of good behaviour that restrain certain kinds of action, such as queueing instead of crowding and pushing in. These give people some right to fair treatment. They are not enforceable restrictions, but violating them it is likely to incur anger and complaints.
Different societies have differing priorities regarding the status and rights individual people, families and institutions. Democratic societies tend to put emphasis on individual rights and freedoms. Other societies emphasise the society or religion. But there are continual changes in the workings of individual democracies, and in the status of religions.
The fact that certain rights and freedoms are declared by some authority does not necessarily guarantee that someone is able to exercise them at any particular time.
Some prescribed rights or freedoms might be denied by the actions of other people, or by authorities who are either unaware of the rules or are knowingly ignoring them. This is particularly an issue when there is ambiguity of the relevant rule, or about what actually happened, or different moral opinions.
There are special authorities whose purpose is to ensure that legal rights, freedoms and obligations are upheld. Such authorities publish the rules, monitor the actions of people and organisations in their jurisdiction, and take action to minimise breaches.
This includes the enforcement of penalties, such as imposing fines, restriction of specific actions, or imprisonment. This may or may not prevent the denial of a particular person’s right or freedom, and it may not restore it.
Sometimes an authority may not take any action because the case is trivial, at least from the point of view of the authority. There is a phrase used by lawyers, de minimis non curat lex, which means that the law doesn’t bother to address trivialities.
Exercising the law may be made impossible by physical conditions, and may be relaxed where taking action would be harmful.
Rights and freedoms may be taken away by the relevant authorities following various kinds of incidents.
They are usually taken away for short periods of time in specific areas following such things as traffic accidents, crime scenes or burning buildings, and this is generally accepted.
Restrictions are necessary parts of the required actions following events such as floods, cyclones, earthquakes, volcano eruptions, and tsunamis. The effected people are usually helpful and understanding.
When bushfires are imminent, the local authorities may order people to leave their homes and go to safe gathering points, or forbid people to use certain roads that might become impassable. Some people will opt to stay home to protect their property, or to use the prohibited road. This sometimes costs them their lives.
Special restrictions and obligations are imposed in national and global circumstances such as wars, famine, and pandemics. These three things are very different from each other, but in each case, there will be people who expect to be not affected. Such people often ignore the interim regulations. In the case of pandemics, with Covid-19, many people in many countries have strenuously resisted the requirements of wearing protective masks, keeping a specific distance from other people, and staying indoors except for reasons of necessity. Such people claim that these requirements deny them their “fundamental rights” or their “sovereign rights. But in cases of necessity, such supposed rights must submit to whatever has to be done.
Kinds of rights and freedom
Rights can be categorised as to do, to have and to be.
Freedoms can be to do something and to be free from something.
The conditions for right to do something depend on:
Some of these will require extensive training and/or verification. Examples would be:
The conditions for the right to have something are to have:
There are other things that people may want to do, for example, to dictate what will happen after they have died. When this relates to distribution of the recently dead person’s assets, the right may be legally enforced if it is expressed in a valid unambiguous will. But, even then, it may be legally contested on issues such as fairness. But the requested manner of disposal of the body or the music to be played, etc., can be easily ignored, unless there is a condition that determines what happens if the request is disobeyed.
The conditions for the right to be depend on the law of the land.
The kinds of things we would want to have the right to be include:
A contentious complex issue is whether we have a right, or a freedom, to die when we think it is time to. As a right, euthanasia it is usually regarded to comply with the right to be cared for, on the grounds that it eternally removes pain and mental anguish. In certain views, including some religious beliefs, euthanasia may be regarded to conflict with being cared for.
As a freedom, euthanasia is painless suicide.
If it is taken contrary to the laws to the country, it may be punishable if unsuccessful or apprehended during the process. Religion and libertarianism will often disagree on such issues
Aspects of Freedoms
As mentioned earlier, freedoms are generally not absolute, and the condition for a freedom is absence of a specific restriction. And there is freedom to do something and freedom from something.
Freedom to do relates to actions, speech, and belief, and also to abstaining from doing. In some cases it overlaps with a related right to be.
Things that people want to be free to do include:
Things that people want to be free from include:
Concepts of undue and unfair contain elements of subjectivity.
Most of these rights and freedoms are complex and their formal statements may be ambiguous. They have to accommodate the wide range of situations, needs, preferences and beliefs of all the people they affect. And there must be enough resources to fulfil them.
There are situations where obligations attached to rights can be exempted, such as medical conditions and physical handicaps.
Different tribunals will make different judgments of a particular issue.
Different regimes have different degrees of lenience in what they allow and what they forbid. Authoritarian regimes often reject rights and freedoms that, for most people, are essential for a humanitarian society.
Rights or freedoms should preferably be justified, particularly if they are likely to have awkward or dire consequences.
Denying them also needs justification.
Justification can be difficult. And once decisions are made, it may be very difficult to stop or control or reverse any that turn out to have bad outcomes.
The virtues and downsides will often be contested. Both sides may predict unlikely or outlandish adverse consequences. Weighing the balance may be difficult and controversial.
There are more kinds of rights and freedoms that I could fit into this essay. So I will discuss only two: religion, and freedom of speech.
Rights and Freedom of Religion
To discuss the rights and implied freedoms of religion, it will be necessary to discuss what religion is.
There is religion and there are religions.
Religion is belief or faith in some system of ideas that concern morality and rules for requiring and prohibiting specific actions relating to that morality.
A religion is an institution that accepts and acts in accordance with a specific set of religious beliefs.
Religions usually proclaim the existence of a powerful supernatural entity that has prescribed these ideas and actions. In most cases, the supernatural entity is believed to actively engage in what happens in the material world. Belief in such an entity is generally regarded to be an essential part of religion. The proclaimed power of the supernatural entity is often used to uphold the status of religious rights.
There is a multiplicity of religions and religious sects, each with its own beliefs, obligations and prohibitions. In most religions, individual members often choose how much emphasis and credence to give to each item of belief and each obligation.
Each religion claims that its own set of beliefs are more true than the beliefs of other religions. Each also has rules and ritual practices that it regards to be sacred.
The authenticity of some institutions that claim to be religious is often disputed.
Scientology, voodoo, dreamtime and pantheism, are not accepted as religions in some countries.
The Pastafarians, a mock religion created by Atheists, who purport to worship the Flying Spaghetti Monster, has been denied religious acceptance by at least one government.
Atheists and Agnostics don’t accept the credibility of any religion, but they claim to have logically justifiable moral beliefs and practices. They expect to have rights and freedoms on a par with those given to religions. They, and many other people, see no reason why anyone should be restricted by any religious law that has no evidentially logical justification.
Religious institutions and individual members of religions often expect every aspect of their teachings and practices to be accepted and respected by the society they live in.
But the beliefs of all of these groups interact with each other and with the laws and rules of governments and other organisations.
Some religious rights and practices impact on the rights and wellbeing of many people or on the laws of the land, such as discrimination regarding employment, services, social acceptance, abortion, marriage, health, and public safety.
Some religious beliefs may conflict with professional or business obligations. Examples would be whether surgeons should perform or refuse such procedures as abortions, vasectomies, female genital cutting or give advice on IVF or contraception. Should pharmacists be compelled to stock contraceptives, or pastrycooks be compelled to put symbols of homosexuality, etc., on their cakes when asked by their customers?
Different people and different administrations will have strongly different answers on these issues.
The multiplicity of differences of belief and practices, and their incompatibility, makes it impracticable for all of them to be upheld by the law.
So, many must be rejected by the law.
One issue of why any religion should impinge on the rights of people who are not members.
The criteria might be the consequences of particular beliefs and practices being allowed, and what beliefs and practices are essential elements of each religion. The criteria of both issues will always be disputed.
All aspects of each religion that are regarded to be sacrosanct should be examined by independent parties to decide whether they could justifiably impinge on people who are not members. There are justifiable reasons why many aspects should not.
The religious authenticity of many beliefs and practices is disputed.
The beliefs and rituals derived from foundational texts, that are claimed to have been divinely revealed at the time when the religion began, cannot be authenticated. Scholars say that much of the original text has been lost, and the remaining earliest texts have been misunderstood by later translators, and each new copy includes more misunderstandings and new passages.
Most current religious texts contain passages that are ambiguous or contradict other passages.
Most texts contain passages that accept or require acts that now would generally be regarded to be immoral by many people.
Most texts contain statements that can now be demonstrated to be untrue.
Additional practices have been developed for institutional reasons.
New beliefs have been added when later members of a religion claimed to have received a divine revelation. These cannot be authenticated.
No religious obligations could be justifiably imposed on people who are not members of the religion, or be exempt from the laws of the land. But to some people, practising their religious beliefs is a serious matter of duty, giving them satisfaction. Such cases often need to be resolved. Resolution might include discussing the questionable religious items that I have just discussed, but faith and emotion often reject facts and explanations.
In secular societies some acclaimed “sins” are now being regarded to be acceptable by a large part of the community, including many that claim to be Christian. Examples are disobeying commandments such as “remember the sabbath and keep it holy”, and “don’t take the name of God in vain”, and being homosexual. So at least these don’t seem to be justifiably sacred.
So which aspects are essential?
The basis, and origin of most religions are worship of God and love and goodwill towards humanity. “God is Love”. In Matthew 22 are the words “Love your neighbour as yourself. There is no greater commandment than this”. Many practising Moslems would say that this is also essential with Islam. It could be argued that no belief or practice that contradicts this could be regarded to be sacred.
But religions also feature and punishment. This arises from insistence on complete loyalty and respect to the god and the religion, and it is backed up by the texts. Innoxious beliefs and actions then become evil. There has been much discrimination and assassination over victimless actions, and also many wars prompted by differences of religion.
In societies ruled by a religion, and to a lesser extent in societies where one religion is predominate, the rulers or government often dictate the rights, freedoms, obligations, and penalties. There is no love in the penalties.
Secular societies also have to decide about religious prohibitions and obligations.
Non-religious institutions have their own codes of morality. Football and other sporting bodies have strict rules, not only for the game, but also for the way their participants live their lives. For some people, their favourite game is a religion, for both players and followers.
Secular institutions often have to struggle with religious and ethical contentions. They sometimes get tangled in individual issues, such as the sacking, in 2019, of the Pentecostal footballer Israel Folau, who used a social medium to say that people who committed some specific “sins” would go to hell.
Some people claimed to be victims of his action. He became a victim of it also, and then there was a complex resolution.
This matter was not only an issue of freedom of religion, but also one of freedom of speech. And that leads us to the next topic.
Freedom of speech
Freedom of speech, and the lack of it, have been issues for a very long time. A famous example is the execution, in 399 BCE, of the Greek philosopher Socrates, who was accused of “failing to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges” and “introducing new deities” because of his public utterances.
In the context of freedom of speech, the word speech entails more than oral speech. It can refer to any kind of medium by which any concept can be conveyed to someone.
More specifically, speech can be oral, written, pictorial, symbolic or using gestures. A combination of some of these produces petitions and protests.
Different kinds of medium need different appraisal.
The things that determine whether people want speech to be free or restrained or prohibited are:
- the context;
- the content;
- the purpose;
- the manner, and
- the consequences.
The range of contexts includes private conversations and letters, small and large groups of people, lectures to audiences, preaching, newspapers and journals, social media, books, and entertainment. The more private the speech, the less likely it will be officially restrained or prohibited. Entertainment can get away with speech that would not be accepted in more serious contexts. This relates particularly to comedians and cartoonists.
In some cases, the significance and reputation of the author can affect the acceptance of speech.
In the Folau case, the context of a prominent footballer using social media increased its significance, and the reaction. Is public expression of opinions or beliefs by employees a justification for dismissal? Does this depend on whether they have violated established corporate rules of behaviour, or criticised the actions of the corporation, or expressed a controversial opinion?
Content can be news, fiction, biography, autobiography, politics, education, guidance, science, religion, legal, commercial, advertising, entertainment, humour, critical review, and satire.
Speech would be challenged or censored if it were untrue, misleading, threatening, abusive, defamatory, or disclosed confidential personal or commercial details. Complaint in these cases would mainly be litigation, by persons, organisations, and governments.
Governments often prohibit, and/or penalise, dangerous provocation, dangerous misinformation, disclosure of sensitive material, and unauthorised instructions for dangerous objects and acts.
Content that is accepted or tolerated in some communities may be prohibited and sometimes severely punished in others. These usually refer to religion, and in particular to blasphemy, homosexuality, “disgusting” words and “disgusting” topics, all of which are victimless crimes. Blasphemy and disgust are very ambiguous concepts, and are often defined to suit a particular occasion or purpose.
Attitudes on all of these matters can change over time
The main purposes of speech are for conversation, requesting, entertaining, self-expression, education, information, instruction, praising, denouncing, abusing, threatening, and defrauding. A mischievous hoax, such as the one that panicked people into unnecessarily buying stocks of toilet paper, might be done for fun, or for troublemaking.
Different societies will have different attitudes to the various purposes.
Speech can be deliberately or unintentionally insulting or ambiguous. Some people have a propensity to see objectionable intensions that were not meant, or not there.
The contentious Folau Instagram read :
“WARNING Drunks, Homosexuals, Adulterers, Liars, Fornicators, Thieves, Atheists, Idolaters [he forgot Agnostics] HELL AWAITS YOU. REPENT! ONLY JESUS SAVES”.
Whatever its purpose, this does not display the love and compassion proclaimed by Christianity.
Folau and his supporters said that it was part of his religious freedom to express his beliefs by quoting from the bible. To the people who felt it was addressed to themselves, it was a purposeful condemnation and an insult.
This raises the issue of the purposes, and justifications, of the various kinds of display of religion, from wearing jewellery or clothing displaying a crucifix or other symbol of a religion, or wearing specific clothing such as a clerical collar or a burqa, to notices with simple messages such as “Jesus loves you”, to preaching in the street, and to making public accusations of immorality.
Resolving contentious expressions of morality, false accusations, and defamation, combined with the propensity of participants to be self-righteous or offended, is seldom easy.
The manner of speech can be clear and simple, or clumsy, complex and hard to understand. It can be formal or informal, and it can be direct or implied.
It can be deadpan, poetic, elegant, pretentious, or profuse. and these manners can be used for being provocative, abusing, demeaning, confronting, or insulting. Different manners of speech can influence the way recipients assess and react to the content.
Two different kinds of manner are petitions and protests. Petitions are formal requests for specific actions, and may be made by individuals or organised groups. The requests usually include justifying arguments. The organisers use various kinds of media to invite as many people as possible to take an active or nominal part in the petition. Nominal would be making small contributions of money to help fund the associated publicity, or adding their name to the list of petitioners. When the organisers are ready, they bring their petition to the relevant authority. This is usually a fairly peaceful process, but it can sometimes be directed against individual people or minority groups.
Protests are gatherings of people in a public place. The place is chosen to have some impact on the general public, and/or to be a place that is significant to the authority being petitioned. Some or many of the protesters will carry placards with slogans relevant to their cause. The protest is conducted largely in accordance with what each participant decides to do, but with a prior general agreement about how the participants will behave. This may be peaceful or aggressive. And the agreement will not always be accepted by all of the protesters. The protest will usually inconvenience or disrupt nearby public and official activities.
Peaceful protests can become aggressive in various ways. Some participants may wish to be aggressive. Sometimes the disturbed general public may become hostile. Sometimes the police may try to break them up and then get a hostile reaction. Just what will happen can be hard to predict. Some protests last for weeks and can become indiscriminately destructive.
Different authorities have different rules about what is permissible, and about what action is to be taken with the different kinds of breaches.
Censorship of speech
Speech is censored by governments, religions, business, social and sports organisations, schools, libraries, shops, and activists.
Different media are censored in different ways.
Misleading speech, such as disinformation and conspiritory theories, is very hard to censor. Once it is noticed, some people will accept it and propagate it.
Printed material may be banned from publication or import into the country, or seized and burnt. Authors and booksellers may be prosecuted. For a few centuries, the Catholic Church had a list of prohibited books.
Lecturers may be banned from entering a country, drowned out by groups of people, and blockaded from their venue. Audiences may be blockaded.
Words or topics may be removed from printed texts, radio, television, film or live entertainment, but be then accepted in another or the same medium.
In some entertainment media there are ratings for “mature” and immature” audiences.
All of these may be advisory or enforced. All of these actions can be controversial.
There are various kinds of law concerning public gatherings. These may restrict protests, and also militant and anti-government groups that try to build up memberships. The ultimate action against these gatherings includes severe physical restraint. But protesters often oppose such restraints, sometimes violently.
Reasons given to justify censorship vary between cultures and with time.
The main issues for books are:
- national security;
- racial issues;
- encouragement of damaging or “undesirable” activities – promoting drugs and gambling, etc.;
- offensive language;
- sexual references;
- witchcraft: for example the Harry Potter series;
- religious affiliation and criticism;
- extreme political and social bias;
- and age-inappropriate.
All justifications, and all responses to them, raise questions of seriousness, fairness, and effectiveness.
Should hate speech and dangerous ideas be suppressed? Does silencing deny freedom of speech? Is silencing counterproductive? Activists get publicity from silencing, and by disrupting debate. Should all sides discuss all issue together, with independent coordinators?
There will be different beliefs about the balance of benefits and damage in each case
There will always be influences, by individual people, institutions or pressure groups.
Freedom of the Press
A classical comment on censorship is, “Our freedom relies on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” But this freedom is limited, by government and other influential organisations. The press “barons”, owners of the media organisations, have a history of suppressing and distorting news and comment that disagree with their opinions or personal interest. There is another classical saying “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. And this applies not only to speech, but to all rights and freedoms.
Having demonstrated with religion and speech, it seems that there must be both commonalities and specific differences with all kinds of rights and freedoms. And in each there is a multitude of uncertainties.
People have different degrees of emotion relating to providing and prohibiting the different rights and freedoms.
We all have our own codes of morality, and our desires and our opinions and our weaknesses, and these can change with each different situation.
Most of us manage to adapt them, however loosely, into our community’s rights and freedoms.