The obsolescence of rights

When we mention rights, we imply enforcement. It is so culturally the norm, and it’s so damaging! We all have a natural ability to change ourselves, to adapt to external conditions that we may sometimes classify as extreme. We can coerce other people to change their behavior, jump through our hoops — sometimes! — but we have zero ability to change other people. Zero!

Their thoughts and feelings will remain in place for a long time, and their behavior may “leak” into other ways of expression. When they decide for themselves that there is some advantage for themselves in changing their behavior, changes become more long-lasting, sustainable.

So often we hear “I have a right to ____!” which only means “I am right and you are wrong.” In spite of what the Constitution says, we do not have “inalienable rights” granted to us merely by the fact of our existence. What it really means is that the government grants you legal recourse if you feel injured in some way, and we may call those protections “rights,” but that sets up a polarity, a dialectic, between right and wrong. That notion creates wars between individuals, families, ethnic communities, and nations. That notion is obsolete, we can let go our attachment to it now and look at the possibility of collaboration between those who claim to be right and the ones they blame for being wrong.

When Darwin wrote about survival of the fittest, he mentioned survival at the group level as stronger than that of individuals. “He postulated that moral men might not do any better than immoral men but that tribes of moral men would certainly “have an immense advantage” over fractious bands of pirates.” Others have said that we would not have ever survived as a species if we had not developed collaboration as a primary modus operandi.

In a culture of collaboration there is no right or wrong. A culture of collaboration contains an unshakable peace, joy, and cheerfulness. There are no enemies, only potential partners. There is no retribution, there is only restoration of authentic relationship. The welfare of the whole society is not more or less important than the welfare of the individual; they are equal, inextricably woven together. Pain, suffering, and grief are integrated into a healing evolutionary process and regarded as sources of valuable information.

My friend Gary Baran, who worked extensively with Marshall Rosenberg, the founder of the Center for Nonviolent Communication, contrasted the ethics of justice with the ethics of empathy when he put it this way:


“People obviously have legal rights, granted by some system of government. But I am suspicious about talk about human rights or natural rights, because these notions seem to require buying into some theological assumptions I don’t share; and in any case I would prefer to see people talking about (universal) needs rather than rights because I believe that will involve less demand energy and its concomitant resistance. Typically, talk about rights implies corresponding duties. (If I have a right, someone else has a duty.) I’d like to see all of this replaced with a focus on meeting needs.” 

My understanding of universal needs leads me to endorse them as the basis for a very practical conflict-resolution strategy without a semantic philosophy attached to it. I am much more interested in observable results that meet everyone’s needs, no exceptions, regardless of their right to having those needs met.

This requires negotiation, sometimes very long and open-minded conversation moved by curiosity and respect about strategies for producing the desired results. There is always a risk that the proposed solution does not work, requiring additional negotiation. However, the probability of discovering a sustainable solution on the basis of people’s willingness to surrender and expand their attitudes and beliefs about who is right, who deserves consideration, is extremely high.

It is no longer right to be right or righteous about anything.

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