not for feeding
So, okay, on the one hand, nobody owes us a living, on the other hand everyone has a right to the basic necessities for survival. How can these apparently inconsistent propositions be reconciled?
My feeling is that both these propositions need to be looked at more carefully. Let’s look at the first proposition, that nobody owes any individual a living. Is this proposition actually true? Is it true in all circumstances?
Clearly it isn’t true in all circumstances. We all agree that children can’t be expected to fend for themselves. The same goes for the extreme elderly, the intellectually and physically disabled, the insane, the very ill and so forth. And around all of these groups there are fuzzy boundaries. There are some obvious questions to be asked – when does a child become an adult, when does an illness become incapacitating, and how much is society willing to expend on the continued survival of a severely incapacitated individual?
Let’s look again at our surfer. Most people would agree that society doesn’t owe her a living because she’s making no effort to fend for herself. That’s to say, we don’t owe all people a living, and particularly not those we feel aren’t playing the game.
Introducing this idea about ‘playing the game’ complicates matters no doubt, and yet it does seem necessary and right. It goes back to what I’ve said about the hidden assumptions in the concept of rights. Rights are provisional, at least in some cases. Certainly the right to food clothing and shelter is.
So what do we mean by ‘playing the game’? The key to understanding this is to recognise the importance of society to individuals. Rights apply to individuals, but all individuals are caught up in a web of relationships, which are in fact essential, not only to their identities, but to their very existence. Those relations involve tacit understandings about co-operation. These understandings can be very complex, as you would accept when they facilitate the construction of languages, religions, cities and business enterprises. None of these would get built if everyone decided to go surfing. It’s the game of social life, interaction, give and take, reciprocity.
It’s probably true to say that describing this reciprocal, interactive, co-operative world, and what we owe to it and what it owes us, is very difficult, far more so than developing a set of human rights for our flourishing. The human rights approach largely assumes reciprocity and co-operation. Often it assumes much more. For example, any claim to a right to education will make assumptions, not only about the benefits of education, but about what an education actually entails. For example, we can talk about a trip abroad being very eye-opening and educational, but trips abroad are unlikely to feature in the kind of education we might feel we have a right to. Often we hear the phrase ‘a right to a basic education’, which is presumably meant to keep the term ‘education’ within reasonable and narrow limits, but again the term ‘basic’ isn’t very clear as a definition.