We humans are deeply social beings who are constantly in dynamic interactions with other people around us. In these interactions, there are always a constant flow of giving and taking. These two are in essence the same, but depending on the point of view. Just like a stick is a single object but with two ends, each human exchange is a two-end transaction – my taking is the same as your giving and vice versa.
Just as giving and taking are two aspects of the same phenomenon, so are the basis of this phenomenon, i.e. duties and rights. My rights depend on someone else’s duties.
All giving is based on an ethical/moral, legal or compassionate (feeling of) duty. And this giving then becomes someone else’s take.
The words duty and obligations have unfortunately come to have a negative undertone of coercion and guilt and no longer older days’ connotation of noble and positive significance. The true meaning, however, is something fundamentally very positive – to replace greed and egoism with generosity.
However, we live in a society that has increasingly come to focus on rights, which paradoxically has come to be perceived as something noble and meritorious. Ideally, these rights should also come without any duties.
It goes without saying that in any context where everyone primarily focuses on their rights and what one can get out of a relationship with other people instead of on their duties and what one can give, egoism, self-interest, and unhealthy competition will rule. This is a major cause of human conflicts and suffering.
In an ideal society, where each person instead puts the interests of their fellow human beings first, and focuses on all the different ways one can contribute to the well-being of others, in the end everyone would be a winner, both in the personal relationships and the large society.
The performance of one’s duties leads to peace and love, while only claiming one’s rights leads to conflict. Focus on duties leads to cooperation, while focus on rights leads to competition. Duties unite while rights divide. You are yourself in full control of your duties, while you are dependent on others for your rights.
Focusing on your duties rather than on your rights can also be liberating, as you would no longer need to keep an account to ensure a “fair” balance on who owns services to whom.
This is a deeply known insight in Buddhism, where the path to enlightenment goes through gradually disposing of all inner hatred, greed, and spiritual ignorance in favour of loving kindness, generosity, and wisdom.
Of course, such an ideal society does not exist, and if some people constantly would uncritically focus on their duties while others would all the time insist on their rights, the former would be exploited by the latter. However, this is not in itself an argument against working to shift focus from rights to duties at all levels and in all contexts.
This requires a powerful vision and insight into what leads to a good society. One who realised this was John F Kennedy, who in his inaugural speech on January 20, 1961 said: “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”
This blog post has been inspired by Sangharakshita (1996). Crossing the stream.