All Commentary
Thursday, May 1, 1980

The Double-Headed Coin of Rights and Duties


Dr. Shumiatcher is a prominent lawyer in Regina, Saskatchewan, well known as a lecturer, writer, and defender of freedom.

A country in which everybody demands his rights is like a house in which everyone is shouting for his supper with no one in the kitchen to cook it.

The International Year of the Child spawned a rash of rights that look much like the pimples of puberty on the faces of the pupils of at least one Canadian public school.

The object of the exercise was to create a “tribute to the International Year of the Child that would be everlasting.” Here are some of the debts said to be owed to children by teachers, parents and others—all framed and enshrined on a prominent wall in the M. J. Coldwell School in Regina.

“The Right to an Education”

There is scarcely a child of the past half a century who has not had this right served up to him on heaping platters. Indeed for years, truancy laws have served to remind children and their parents that the doors of the schoolhouse are open wide to all, and that they not only have the right to enter, but the duty to learn. No one but they themselves can ever do that. What needs restating is not the right to an education, but the duty of every child to learn. Whatever pedagogues may claim, there is no such thing as teaching; there is only such a thing as learning. If the aery-fairy Year of the Child is to lead the young into the real world where he may become a mature adult, he must meet duty face to face. He must discover his first duty is to learn, because to be ignorant is a shameful state. Without that duty, all of the education in the world will drain from his brain like rain off a duck.

“The Right to Develop His Potential to the Fullest”

Everyone has the right to develop his muscles so that he can lift a hundred and fifty pounds, the right to strengthen his brain so he can understand Einstein’s mass-energy theory, the right to stretch his legs so he can run the four-minute mile like Bannister, and the right to acquire the skill to play the violin like Yehudi Menuhin. But what do those rights mean until the individual recognizes that the responsibility of improving his body and his mind, his legs and his fingers are his alone? Nothing can happen to realize any of those wonderful results until the individual applies effort and hard work to achieve what he genuinely wants. The right to develop without the will to grow is a seed that is neither planted nor cultivated, but is cast on a concrete road and dries and disintegrates for lack of nutriment, and so is lost to the world at the end of the day.

“The Right to Be a Useful Member of Society”

Every community hungers for competent, educated and energetic people to take on the responsibilities of caring for its parks and public places, of beautifying the dumps, of producing clear cold water for the dwellers of the tenements, of bringing light to the slums and letting pure air into the caverns of the city. Everyone has a right to improve himself and his community. The smallest child can keep his yard and neighborhood clean, can refrain from heaving rocks through windows and drag-racing on main street and breaking beer bottles on the sidewalk. He will then become a useful member of society. It is not a “right” to adopt a life style that is civilized, it is a duty. Every new generation that is born into this world is a fresh barbarian invasion that will seize and grasp and demand and consume everything in sight, until it is civilized into understanding its duty to give and yield and respond and produce.

“The Right to Be Raised in the Spirit of Peace, Understanding, Cooperation and Friendship”

Peace, understanding, cooperation, friendship. These are not gifts that fall from heaven to those who sit idly by awaiting their blessings. Peace is not a right: it is a duty, the burden of which men and women of good will must carry upon their shoulders knowing it to be a treasure beyond all measure. Cooperation is not conduct that one may demand of another; it is a quality of the human state that one can give and, in offering it, learn that it is returned like the smile in a girl’s eyes or a handshake when the fingers linger long, carving the memory of a moment into the lines of your hand and heart. Friendship is not a bank account established by a stranger to pick your lucky ticket in a lottery. It is a bundle of duties and obligations that may bud and blossom into a rose for those you love, that one day may be returned to you with all of its fragrance gone, but shorn of every thorn.

“The Right to Affection, Love and Understanding from Teachers and Fellow Students”

To consider “affection and love” our right is to misunderstand the individual’s humanity. Love is not taken like an apple from a tree, but only given. And understanding is not a right, but a pilgrimage on a long and tortuous road that has no end. No one can demand affection, no one can elicit love—not even with the most complex machine man’s ingenuity can create. To claim love as a right is as foolish as to demand that the rain cease to fall upon you. The greater the demand, the greater will be your disappointment.

The simple fact of life is that there are no rights that bloom in the human state. There are only obligations; it is they that are the seeds which, planted and laboriously nurtured, may one day blossom into rights.

Bills of Human Rights and laws that pretend unconditionally to distribute “rights” are illusions like the commercials that advertise free money, or effortless muscle building, fat melting or wrinkle routing. They exist only in one’s imagination.

To my young friends so preoccupied with the gimmies that masquerade as rights, may I suggest this: If you hope to enjoy the right to a hot bowl of soup at lunch time, you will be doomed to disappointment and will never have it unless someone assumes the duty of finding the meat and vegetables to cook it, and takes the time and trouble in the kitchen to produce it, and with affection (or out of a sense of duty) places that bowl of soup on a plate on the table for you to eat and enjoy. Without duty there is no soup. And no one has a right to expect to enjoy soup unless he also is prepared to perform his duty to cook it!

You may think you have a right to walk down the street at night in safety. But simply to declare that such a right exists will give you neither safety nor comfort. It is only if I, and every other citizen assume the duty to give you free passage and not molest you, that you can walk in safety on the city street you claim to be your own.

A “right” is a coin with only one side. Unless it has another side on which the word “duty” appears, the coin is as worthless as a Czarist ruble. You may have the right to pass it on to buy an apple, but if your grocer thinks it worthless, he has no obligation to accept it for his fruit, and you will go hungry. How valuable, then, is your one-sided coin that reads “rights,” without the other side that spells duties?

Have you ever thought that the Ten Commandments, older than the hills of Galilee and as durable as Mount Sinai, speak not a single word about human rights? They do not suggest you have a right to God’s love, but rather, that you have a duty to love your God.

They do not create a right to make demands upon your parents, but they speak of the duty of every child to love and cherish and honor his mother and father: the duty to care for them as they grow old and feeble.

The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights was written in 1948 in the belief it would make us all more mindful of our duty to act justly toward our neighbors, whatever their color, creed or origin. Ever since, we have heard more and more about human rights, and less and less about personal duties. It was once considered enough for legislatures to declare, “let light abound that right be found.” But laws can no more grant the smallest right to Peter without imposing a corresponding duty on Paul. If Peter is to be a pumpkin eater, Paul must be a pumpkin picker.

Let us then place alongside the Declaration of the Rights of the Children of the M. J. Coldwell School, a Proclamation of the Duties of the young to themselves, their parents and teachers, their friends and their neighbors. And let us not forget how large a part simple courtesy and good manners make up the basket of our duties.