Rights, Obligations, and Responsibility

What is the relationship between individual rights and obligations/responsibilities? Let’s begin with obligations and responsibilities and then come back to individual rights. An obligation might be more applicable for when a person owes a debt and has to repay it. A responsibility is more often describing a scenario when someone is in charge of, or has authority over, something else.

Let’s consider where a person lives and “owns” their home for this example. I am responsible for the home I own. In a very pragmatic way, if I have a mortgage, I’m responsible caring for the home if for no other reason to protect the collateral for the bank note. It’s in my best interest so I don’t lose my investment in the end and can get my return (and more hopefully) in the end when I sell it. By virtue of the mortgage contract I’m obligated to pay the money back either over the term f the mortgage, when I sell it, or by forfeiting the collateral.

There is more to the obligation if we dig a little deeper. The land and the resources to build the house have much longer lifespans–infinite for all practical purposes. I and the bank can legally, but not practically in a bigger picture, own the land or the raw materials and energy used to build the house itself because they outlast all of us. Therefore, I have responsibility to care for the land and resources as I am merely borrowing them for the life of the house and human habitation on that geographical location. I am obligated to do this to “pay” for my use of it. I’m obliged to those I’ve displaced, and those that will come after me–human and nonhuman life. Our laws and society have given me the right to take on this responsibility and obligation.

Now, let’s expand this thinking out past our homes to all other resources we use and decisions we make. They all come from the commons ultimately; they all are pulled from the same land, air, water, etc., all the biotic and abiotic components from the biosphere in which we live.

The carbon burned to heat/cool our homes, drive our cars, encase the beverages we drink, etc., was the rocks, other life, the air at some point and will thus return. Same with the water and everything, literally everything, else. Dust to dust and ashes to ashes and all of that. Our rights can come and go with the whim of society but our responsibility, our obligations cannot. We’ve been gifted life and the resources to live it and by accepting them we have entered into a reciprocal relationship with the earth.

Many now are focused solely on our individual rights. We read the literal words of the U.S. Constitution and focus on this aspect of it, forgetting the obligations the grand bargain we’ve struck by virtue of living, breathing, eating, pooping, and dying. What if first we thought about obligations, and then from that paradigm claimed and granted one another individual rights. This might help shift us to a reciprocal relationship towards the earth and each other and away from a commodification of the earth’s resources. Then maybe life wouldn’t seem like a game where for our “success” the earth and those around us have to somehow lose something. Maybe life and our relationships with others wouldn’t have to be a zero-sum game.

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