Retrieving duties in an age that needs them

Coupling them with human rights, as Mohandas Gandhi believed, requires us to delve into tradition while reinventing it for our times.

A session of the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva underway (photo credit: REUTERS)
A session of the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva underway
(photo credit: REUTERS)
IN 1947, Julian Huxley, English evolutionary theorist and director general of UNESCO, wrote Mohandas Gandhi to ask what he thought of human rights.
“I learnt from my illiterate but wise mother,” he replied, “that all rights to be deserved and preserved came from duty well done.
Thus, the very right to live accrues to us only when we do the duty of citizenship of the world.”
A few months after his exchange with Huxley, Gandhi was dead. Assassinated in January 1948, he did not live to see the Universal Declaration of Human Rights passed by the United Nations General Assembly in December of the same year. In our own age, in which human rights politics have finally come into their own, his emphasis on duties looks downright idiosyncratic.
As a result, we are now very familiar with the claim that all humans everywhere have rights; much less so, however, with the notion that rights are protected by the fulfillment of duties. Thirty years ago, when the human rights movement was in its infancy, philosopher Onora O’Neill complained that there was “no Universal Declaration of Human Duties and no international Human Obligations Movements.”
Nothing has changed this imbalance.
This marginalization of duties has grave consequences not only for rights protection itself. More importantly, even the most generous attempts to protect the political and socioeconomic rights of individuals leave some duties of individuals to their own states and all humanity out of account, as well as some duties of states to one another.
After all, not all duties that morality might impose follow from individual rights.
If the state has a duty to provide housing and food, do individuals have a duty to pay taxes to ensure it can do so? If inequality increases locally and globally, is it best to frame it as an indirect violation of a right ‒ there being no right to fair distribution ‒ or as a rationale to impose on individuals, corporations and states a duty to contribute to a just society? If the planet overheats, is the remedy a personal right to a healthy environment or a collective duty to nature? Such questions force us to reconsider our traditions.
One source is traditional religion, which is our main source for thinking about duties over the millennia.
Judaism, a founder of human rights law Louis Henkin explained, “knows not rights but duties.” We can investigate old sources with the proviso that a call for duties cannot mean the reinstatement of the domination and hierarchy that religion has so often propped up.
There are secular traditions, too, starting with the republican one that emphasized duties of citizenship, however marred these traditions were by their own hierarchies ‒ not to mention the fact that, from Roman times through World War I, a main point of duties was to find soldiers for war.
Traditions of duty have been seriously compromised by their mistakes. But Gandhi was right: They can inspire us to invent our own traditions, so as to transform an age of rights into a new age of duties for a burning world.