The Human Rights/Duties Equation

By Jack Parsons
Volume 2, Number 2 (Winter 1991-1992)
Issue theme: "Getting past the immigration taboo - an international perspective"

I slept and dreamed that life was beauty

I woke and found that life was duty.

- Ellen Sturgis Hooper

We hear a very great deal about human rights these days - and everyone is for them just as everyone is against sin - but not very much at all about the obverse side of the same coin the human duties which have to be recognized and discharged before any alleged right can be realized in practice. If the rights-deniers are brought into the homily it is mostly in an oblique rather than a direct way, although of course there are notable exceptions the human rights record of Idi Amin, Baby Doc, and President Marcos are or were fairly safe, explicit targets for any not under their heels. However, even where the culprits are named, the accusations are still very often couched in terms of what the victims don't get, rather than what those responsible have a duty to provide.

This extremely lop-sided view is clearly demonstrated in the institutes dictated to the study and furtherance of human rights and in the technical literature. Examples of the former include the British Institute of Human Rights, the International Institute of Human Rights; the International Institute of the Rights of Man; the International Training Center for University Teachers of Human Rights; and the United Nations Center for Human Rights. It is hard to prove a negative case, but I have a strong suspicion that not one comparable institution acknowledges the duties side at all in its title or gives it more than a sidelong glance in its literature and activities.

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights is just what it says, a declaration of rights. Its 30 articles, many containing several sub-clauses, mention duties only once (Article 29/1), and then only marginally. The two international covenants on Rights, Civil and Political...and Economic and Social, respectively, drawn up by the UN and ratified by a number of countries, which came into force in 1976, are similarly long on rights and short on duties. The current campaign for a Bill of Rights in Britain follows the same pattern,a nd I believe this is typical of virtually all thinking and action in this sphere.

I wonder whether, since the promulgation of the Ten Commandments. there has ever been a Universal Declaration of Human Duties, or whether, tucked away somewhere, there is - or ever will be - an Institute of Human Duties?

Why is necessary to make this point? Why should we be the least bit tempted to play down or even ignore the duties side of the equation? I put forward three tentative hypotheses, but first let me make it clear that I do not wish to decry human rights in the least degree or denigrate the sincerity or dedication of most of those who campaign in this field. Rather, the attempt is made to steer both discussion and action into potentially more productive channels, making more realistic the demands and more likely the behavior needed to realize them.


Despite the well-known Christian injunction, most of us seem to feel in our hearts that it is far more blessed to receive than to give. A right sounds like a good thing, and on to be passively received, whereas -at the same unthinking level - a duty sounds like something which is not too nice and which has to be actively given. Reinforcing this tendency is the fact that for some decades now in Britain, and possibly other developed countries, too, there has been a powerful current of opinion in political propaganda, Parliament, the schools, literature, the media, and practically everywhere else, placing great stress on individual and groups rights. Everyone is entitled to freedom, justice, food, health, education, work, housing, leisure, transport, television, refrigeration and so on, in other words to welfare in general. Of course I don't want to knock any of those things, many of which a lot of people used to be severely deprived of, as some still are, and most of which I am fortunate enough to enjoy myself.

However, there is a danger that in this torrent of concern for self-realization and social justice, focussing almost entirely on what we should receive, the baby( duty) is being thrown out with the dirty bathwater (social injustice), leaving us with almost insatiable cravings for goods and services from others, coupled with a rather marked lethargy when it comes to the return delivery of goods and services to them. Self-interest has been strongly reinforced by socialization. Part of this syndrome is indicated by the expression often used to preface some a judgment on some social or ethical issue Mind you, I don't want to moralize, but.... It seems to me that many of us want very much to make moral judgments, so much so that this propensity could well have a biological basis. One of the things that has struck me most in the behavior of children, my own when they were very young and others since, is their passionate sense of (in)justice. It's not fair! they screech with all the concentrated fury their small bodies can muster when they don't get what they think is their due, and a reasonable case could perhaps be made for the evolution of an instinctive sense of fair play in complex creatures programmed to live in groups.

Nonetheless, the prevailing climate of opinion, in Britain at least - I'm not sure how widespread it is - seems generally to damp down our urges to make and express clear moral judgments without fear or favor. To many people, urging others to discharge their duties sounds like an exceptionally obnoxious form of moralizing, whereas making sympathetic noises to or about those deprived of their rights - though still a form of moralizing, undoubtedly - sounds much more acceptable.

Despite the typical self-interest and evasions above, it is easy to see why, when viewed in terms of a temporal sequence, people open to an active concern for the persecuted (the majority, it seems, is not) tend to be led into a narrow focus upon the rights side of the equation. When such a person hears of a Nelson Mandela or Andrei Sakharov, he or she will initially tend to sympathize with the sufferings of that individual fellow human being and only later - though it might be soon - arrive at a considered awareness of the whole situation and a condemnation of those causing the problem coupled with a demand that they should discharge their duties by liberating him. Even in those later stages, the image of the individual victim and his lack of rights will continue to loom very large in the mind of the sympathizer, and the smaller the power of the latter to achieve any significant amelioration of the situation, the greater will be this tendency.

It seems very likely that the activist's tendency to focus unduly on the rights side of the equation will be further reinforced by the cultural flywheel, the resultant of all those forces of conservatism which tend to maintain individual and group norms and social institutions against the forces of change. These well-meaning folk will be steeped in the literature - especially that concerning the major historical landmarks in this field the American and French revolutions, Thomas Paine's Rights of Man, the United Nations declarations, and so forth - and can hardly fail to be pushed into an almost total concentration on the rights side, with, at best, a perfunctory acknowledgement of their absolute dependence on duties. Truly inspiring though these landmarks are, surely they must not be allowed to overshadow the realistic thought and action needed to bring their high ideals to fruition.


First an apologia. As far as I can recall I have had a strong sense of both right (I'm not sure about rights) and duty since I was quite small (perhaps the childish instinct mentioned earlier never left me), though I can't say where it came from or claim that it led to any enhanced nobility of character. At sixteen I had a powerful feeling of empathy with the Spanish Republican cause and at eighteen a strong sense of duty to do my bit to defeat Fascism. The first was not urgent enough to get me out to Spain, but the latter did prise me out of my reserved occupation in a munitions factory to fly with the RAF as soon as the regulations permitted. Pans of conscience later on in the war and afterwards led me quite deeply into the rights and wrongs of conscientious objection, though not far enough to become a pacifist. In postwar years I have more than once found myself agonizing until it was too late over whether the family greeting cards should be bought from Oxfam, Amnesty, the humanists, or yet another good cause - a pathological sense of duty if ever there was one.

Despite this background, I didn't put any real effort into the study of rights and duties until the middle sixties (my middle forties) when I became increasingly involved with problems of population, poverty and development and rapidly concluded - at that stage on a largely intuitive basis - that population control was an inescapable part of the solution. As would-be libertarian, I then became very troubled by the inroads which it seemed that population control must make into the right to reproduce and individual liberty in general. For a time the cure seemed worse than the complaint and this misgiving was reinforced by the then generally received wisdom, still not quite neutralized, that large families tended to produce the most rounded individuals and therefore the best citizens. (For a detailed critique of this belief, see Chapter 7 of my Population Fallacies, Pemberton, 1977.)

However, several years of intensive research and rather hard celebration, strongly encouraged by Hector Hawton, led to the production of a manuscript for Pemberton Books which was so large that it had to be split into two titles. The first of these came out in 1971 as Population versus Liberty, an attempt to square the obvious need to balance population against resources with the need to preserve the right to individual liberty. In essence the conclusions were that no liberty can be absolute, everything is conditioned by the total environment. Liberty is affected by population growth as well as by control measures, so that there comes a time in the growth of numbers when population control is required not in spite of the need to preserve individual liberty, but in order to preserve it.

I also examined the concepts of rights in this context, notably the right to reproduce, and concluded that the duty not to reproduce too prolifically was just as strong, but that both it and duties in general were largely ignored by the commentators. The notion of rights and duties has meaning only in a social context..(they)...are two halves of the same equation. A's rights are produced by B's duties...and vice versa. In a context in which nobody has any duties, nobody can have any rights... (Population versus Liberty, Pemberton, 1971).

Of course I didn't then and I don't now claim that relating rights to duties is a new idea. I drew attention to Mazzini's impassioned plea for us to recognize and discharge our manifold duties ...all your rights can be summed up in one the right to be absolutely unfettered in and to be aided, within certain limits, in the fulfillment of your duties. I also quoted Thomas Paine's clear and simple plea A Declaration of Rights is, by reciprocity, a declaration of duties also. Whatever is my right as a man is also the right of another; and it becomes my duty to guarantee as well as to possess.

My conclusion was that, while a few commentators touch upon the duties side, and most individuals would, if pressed, probably admit their relevance, most of us, most of the time - even the experts - prefer to ignore the lead given by such thinkers as Mazzini and Paine and the duties themselves.


Fifteen years later the above analysis still seems valid, but I now want to add a brief commentary from three additional perspectives first, that of physics and mathematics, stressing the concepts of equivalence and conservation; then those of developmental psychology, taking up again in this context the idea of conservation; and thirdly, that of ethology, touching on displacement activity but stressing redirection.

In the context of physical science conservation does not mean preserving things of value, or the wise use of resources, but as the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary puts it (a formulation of the First Law of Thermodynamics) ...conservation of energy or force...the total energy of any body or a quantity which can neither be increased or diminished by any mutual action of those bodies, though it may be transformed. So conservation of mass, etc,.

It defines the equivalence of force as the doctrine that force of one kind becomes transformed into force of another kind of the same value. Hence, Equivalence... Chemists have similar concepts, astronomers talk about the conservation of area, and logicians of equipollence (the equivalence of two symbols or propositions) so we might infer that these important concepts in a number of disparate disciplines, themselves have a sort of equivalence reflecting a really basic aspect of the world about us. My first hypothesis is that this may apply in some sense, if only as a metaphor, to action (energy?) in social systems, and the first stage of exploration is to look at the learning of conservation and equivalence in children.

The classic studies of Piaget and his colleagues showed that the capacity to understand and correctly apply the concepts of equivalence and conservation is only slowly and painfully acquired. In our earlier years we have little or no idea of conservation even in such concrete spheres as those of matter (mass), weight and volume.

Piaget's findings were based on such experiments as giving a child a ball made of modelling clay and asking him to make another exactly like it, just as big and heavy, from an amply supply of the same material. When this was done, the experimenter changed the appearance of one of the balls - perhaps by cutting it in half or rolling it into a sausage shape - and then asking if the amount of clay was still the same (technically, whether the mass was conserved) (See The Development Psychology of F. Piaget by J.H. Flavell, 1963.)

A long series of experiments of this and other kinds showed that very young children have virtually no idea of conservation, but systematically evolve one as they mature. Each of the three basic types of quantity (mass, weight and volume) shows a comparable trend through three clear stages from complete non-conservation to a hit-and-miss rule-of-thumb mode, valid in some cases but not in others, through to an intuitively certain, almost axiomatic, conservation in every transformation of the quantity in question.

However, there are important differences in the rate of acquiring conservation-competence (we need words for it, analogous to numerate and numeracy - how about conservate and conservancy?) in the three spheres. In Piaget's subjects conservation of matter became common at 8 to 10 years, of weight at 10 to 12 years, whereas conservation of volume was found only at 12 plus, and he came up with interesting ideas linking these patterns with the growth of knowledge, and intellect, particularly logic.

From here it is but a small step to hypothesize a possible parallel in the fields of economic, political and moral thinking up to and including adult life. Do we start off with zero knowledge of and judgment in these fields as in the case of mass, etc., and slowly acquire competence as we age and learn? If so, is there a further parallel in that the rates vary between the different spheres so that conservancy tends to arrive in economic before politics, say, and in politics before morality? If the answer is yes to both questions, can anything be said about typical rates of learning and thresholds, and is it possible that many - perhaps most - of us never reach a reasonable level of competence in some or even all of these spheres? I have a hunch that true conservancy in these three areas of human aspiration might be the quality we have in mind when we use the words wise and wisdom, and, in passing, I can't help wondering how often readers feel impelled to apply these to people they know, or know about.


Ethologists have shown us that animals often switch energetically to another, often quite unrelated, activity when their current behavioral urge is frustrated. Most of us have probably been sadistic enough at one time or another to tease a kitten with a tuft of wool on a bit of string, tantalizingly dangling or tugging it along but jerking it away just as the little hunter pounced. A common response to this is a number of energetic attempts to capture the prey followed by a complete switch of attention into furious face-washing, often followed by another bout of hunting, and so on.

Two labels are used for behavior in this general category, displacement-activity - perhaps the better known - and redirection, and behavior of both kinds is found in human beings.

The best illustration I know is from the work of the zoologist, Cloudesley-Thompson, who happened to be a tank commander during the 1944 advance into Normandy

The shelling continued...(from German Tigers, whose 88mm guns) could make mincemeat of the smaller British Cruiser tanks....and several of ours were hit. The explosions were deafeningly close....(but) despite the fact that all our lives depended on remaining alert, oddly enough I could scarcely keep my eyes open, and my driver and wireless operator were snoring audibly (Animal Behaviour by J.L. Cloudesley-Thompson, 1960).

He noted that an overpowering desire to sleep in such circumstances was no new experience, though it was some time before he realized its true significance as a displacement activity, which occurs, for example, when the instinct to flee conflicts with the instinct to fight. He pointed out, too, that conflict between drives can also lead to redirected activity for instance, a man may bang the table when he is irritated with his wife, because he is inhibited from striking her.

Prima facie it seems likely that just as animals and people switch energetically to some other activity when a basic drive is frustrated, so human rights activists may tend to fight shy of the painful, difficult, time-consuming and often near-impossible task of persuading powerful individuals or groups to discharge those duties which would generate the rights demanded, and redirect their frustrated reforming zeal towards some vague general audience which may not realize it is being addressed, or even the victims themselves who are very unlikely to object. The more powerful the rights-deprivers and the nearer the reformer gets to them the stronger will be the temptation to redirect reforming zeal toward ostentatious displays of sympathy for the victim and diffuse recriminations against the status quo.

No simple formula can possibly comprehend the complex domain of rights and duties. Although I suggest there is a metaphorical truth in saying that the mass of rights consumed must have equivalence with the mass of duties discharged and that the basis of this is, or should be, reciprocity, as suggested by the Golden Rule, it is obvious that there are many exceptions. Everyone would agree that babies have rights against adults but no duties in return and that much the same goes for many animals. Other examples of asymmetrical reciprocity can be produced - employer/employee, for instance - but the total absence of reciprocity will be the exception rather than the rule.

A further problem arises from the fact that action to generate rights for others connotes doing things, whereas some rights can be ensured by inaction, by refraining from interference, although action on the part of A may be required to force inaction on the part of B in order to insure the enjoyment of a right by C, and so on.


Clearly there are many problems with the above analysis, but so are there in the usual approach, in which the vital message that someone somewhere has got to do things - take on further duties in order to create the rights demanded - is implicit rather than explicit, so that those whose behavior deprives others of their rights can more easily pretend it is not addressed to them or ignore it altogether.

A not too far-fetched analogy with the present situation is a society in which 99 percent of the anti-crime effort is addressed to the actual and potential victims; exhorting them to be more aware of their rights not to be burgled, robbed, raped, or otherwise injured, and only 1 percent to the criminals, to law, police, probation, prisons and the like.

It would take far more space than is available here to try to meet the above and other objections but it does seem useful, at the metaphorical level at least, to use as a starting point the following ideas

(1) that if rights are to be generated and enjoyed rather than just talked about, then the social energy/mass of duties discharged has to be equivalent in other words the energy/mass must be conserved;

(2) that humans experience great difficulty in learning to conserve, even in the relatively concrete spheres of mass, weight and volume;

(3) that if and when we do attain a reasonable degree of conservancy in social and moral affairs, we still find it only too easy to redirect our reforming energies away from their proper, and difficult, targets, the people responsible, toward those distinctly softer targets, the victims.

The human rights dialogue surely ought not to be between their advocates and people deprived of them, but between the advocates and those responsible - and few of us can entirely escape responsibility - for the deprivation.

My main point is that we should never, or hardly ever, advocate human rights without at the same time, and with at least the same emphasis, advocating the human duties necessary to generate them. They are two halves of the same equation, each meaningless without the other, and, as with mathematical equations, the two sides have to be equivalent, you can't get a quart of rights out of a pint of duties.

Despite my insistence on the essential equivalence of the two sides, it might be salutary to soft-pedal this aspect for an indefinite probationary period, to begin to compensate for generations of distortion and neglect, and to translate every intended statement about rights entirely into the language of duties.

About the author

Jack Parsons is retired from his post as lecturer in sociology at the University of Cardiff, Wales. His books include Population versus Liberty, and Population Fallacies. He is at work on a new book on competitive human breeding.