A Life Worth Living

What makes a life worth living?  If you are following issues that are getting attention at present, you might feel the focus is on individual rights, ensuring you have them all, and protecting them from interference by the government.  But does having and protecting rights guarantee a life worth living, or at the very least constitute an essential component?

That question was on my mind years ago, when I was teaching in Melbourne.  For twelve years, I was the moderator of a group, the Senior Roundtable, which I had helped establish with my friend Brian Hirsh.  Brian was a retired businessman, a passionate advocate for the topics he saw as important.  In the early days those included corporate social responsibility and participative management.  Brian knew several retired people living in the area around Beaumaris, a southeastern suburb of Melbourne, and wanted to bring them together so that the group could do more than complain about children and grandchildren, and worry about their gardens, oh, and their golf scores!

We decided to explore ideas and debate them, to enlarge our understanding of issues, and to widen our horizons.[i]  Brian and I would select a reading each month, sometimes a classical piece, and sometimes a more contemporary selection.  At one stage, we elected to read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and, on its fifty-fifth anniversary, determine whether or not a document written in 1948 was still relevant, and if should be updated.[ii]

With due modesty, we produced a new version, which we called our ‘Statement of Civil Rights and Responsibilities’.  With Brian’s encouragement, our reasoning was simple:  if people were entitled to certain rights, then those rights must also entail balancing obligations.

Here are the opening clauses of our Declaration, as well as a later clause on government:

Article 1

All people are entitled to equal dignity and rights. They are born with the capacity for reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of fellowship.  People have an obligation to assist those less advantaged than themselves.

Article 2

People are entitled to the rights and freedoms in this Statement, without distinction of any kind, such as race, gender, genetic characteristics, colour, age, language, culture, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

Article 3

To justify these rights people must accept the civil and criminal laws of the country where they live or are travelling.  To enjoy these rights and the protection under these rights they must not attack, endanger or interfere with the security, well-being or reputation of their fellow citizens, other countries, or the environment in which they live.

Article 4

In exercising their rights and freedoms, people shall be subject only to those limitations determined by law to secure due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the needs of public order and the general welfare of their society.

Article 16

16.1      Adults have the right to take part in their government, either directly or through freely chosen representatives.

16.2      The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of the government; expressed in periodic and genuine democratic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

I am not sure about the real value of what we did:  it was an engaging exercise, and we tried to ensure that responsibility was appropriately incorporated into the statement.  In retrospect, I am sure the task required more than our little group could offer.  However, we decided to send our Statement on to the group developing a Bill of Rights for the State of Victoria:  they happily accepted the submission, and in 2006 the Victorian Government passed a Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities. [iii]

We also sent our document to the Australian Human Rights Commission, which was exploring establishing an Australian Bill of Rights.  Fifteen years later, a decision over an Australian statement remains unresolved.  A Private Member’s Bill was presented to Parliament in 2017 but did not progressed past a first and second reading.[iv]  There is a strong view in Australia that rights are protected by the Constitution, by various laws and the precedents of common law: given this, the Bill was withdrawn on the grounds there was little support to add to what was already in place.  One commentator argued that “We don’t need one, our citizens are amongst the freest in the world”.  However, careful analysis suggests that, on balance, the arguments to encourage Australia introducing a Bill of Rights are stronger than those against it. [v]

Ever since then, the issue of rights – and responsibilities – has always been in the back of my mind.  Last week I saw The Economist had provided a bibliography of liberalism in its 175th Anniversary issue of 29 August, which was dedicated to renewing liberalism.  I was struck by their interest in what similarities exist among the various writers they recognised as liberal.  The Economist concluded: “A few themes emerge: a commitment to individual rights, an aversion to the status quo and a faith in progress. Liberalism has evolved, and will continue to do so. That ability to adapt and encompass a range of beliefs is a great strength. But only because it exists alongside a second critical component: an insistence on open debate and self-examination. It is this second feature that enables liberalism’s bad ideas to be pruned and the good to be cultivated”. [vi]

A commitment to preserving and extending individual rights: a hot topic at present, as the US Senate is about to consider confirmation of Justice Kavanaugh as a member of the Supreme Court, a man many believe will be happy to strike down the right to abortion, and the right to gay marriage, among others.  These are today’s battlegrounds for fights over the primacy of individual rights, and the limits which governments can justifiably place on such rights.

Does having rights make me a better person?  As I think about this today, I am drawn to wonder if having rights encourages selfishness, at least in our culture:  rights are the corollary of individualism, and it was for this reason my group in Melbourne agreed with Brian that rights must be balanced against responsibilities.  I think we had it correct in another way:  rights don’t belong to individuals alone, but they are part of the environment that defines our collective membership of society.  Today we see individual rights slipping into identity politics.

I might be able to explain my concern about this in a different way.  An emphasis on individual rights, on individualism, might appear to suggest that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was on track when she stated:  “I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!” or “I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!” “I am homeless, the Government must house me!” and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.” [vii]  That almost sounds like a call for no rights, (and no responsibilities?), certainly as far as the government is concerned!  However, she had it wrong:  society does exist, it is the community to which we all belong.  To deny society is to deny ourselves:  we only exist as social beings, and social beings survive through possessing an agreed set of rules to live by.


Some days, I even wonder if all this prescriptive stuff about rights does more harm than good.  Lao Tzu said “The more taboos there are in the empire, the poorer the people; the more sharpened tools the people have, the more benighted the state; the more skills the people have, the further novelties multiply; the better known the laws and edicts, the more thieves and robbers there are.[viii]  OK, that was a bit over the top.  However, the more rights there are, the more likely they are to conflict.  After the adoption of the Victorian Charter of Rights and Responsibilities, I was asked to work with the State Department of Justice.  Their concern: the Victorian Charter gave prisoners the same rights as everyone else, and some of these conflicted with incarceration and other limitations placed on those in jail.  When rights conflict, how do we determine which ones have precedence?

One answer is that there are one or two fundamental rights.  John Rawls came up with a very ingenious way to think about this.  He used a thought experiment, which he called the original position or “the veil of ignorance”, to make his case for an approach he described as “justice as fairness”. [ix]  If you were dreaming up an ideal society, Rawls argued, but didn’t know where you would end up in that society – rich or poor, living in a mansion or in squalor, and so on – it would be in everyone’s self-interest to ensure universal access to the same rights, and he argued that would lead to particular attention being paid to equality of opportunity and shared wealth. Today, the veil of ignorance is often used to argue for more progressive income redistribution, but Rawls noted an important caveat: that inequality in distribution was permissible if it ‘benefited the least well off in society’. That caveat is more troubling than it might first appear.  For example, it could be argued as the basis to justify resisting the growth of redistributive policies if it was clear these policies would undermine economic success; by limiting economic growth, you are limiting the opportunities of the most vulnerable.

Was Rawls saying nothing more than a new way to express the logic of the golden mean: ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’, (or, in the stronger but negative sense, do not do to others what you would not have them do to you), with the added clever twist about actions having to ‘benefit the least well off in society’?  In fact, that ‘clever twist’ does more, it places the focus on community rather than individual benefits.  This is what one writer recently described as “socially-centred virtue ethics”. [x]  The author, Sebastien Purcell, was examining Aztec ethics, and went on: “If the Aztecs were right, then ‘Western’ philosophers have been too focused on individuals, too reliant on assessments of character, and too optimistic about the individual’s ability to correct her own vices. Instead, according to the Aztecs, we should look around to our family and friends, as well as our ordinary rituals or routines, if we hope to lead a better, more worthwhile existence.”

One persistent problem in this is finding the source for those ‘inalienable rights’ on which charters and declarations rest.  Back when religion held sway it was easy; they were god given; existing independently of individuals, they were ours to claim.  However, from what I have read, the god of Christian faiths didn’t say anything about rights.  He did offer some rules, of which the ‘ten commandments’ are the best example: “thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not commit adultery” and so on.  But those weren’t rights, however, they were rules to live by.

If rights are about individuals, then individuals appear increasingly concerned for themselves alone.  As one writer on loneliness recently put it: “The contemporary notion of loneliness stems from cultural and economic transformations that have taken place in the modern West. Industrialisation, the growth of the consumer economy, the declining influence of religion and the popularity of evolutionary biology all served to emphasise that the individual was what mattered – not traditional, paternalistic visions of a society in which everyone had a place.” [xi]  Paternalism versus consumerism?  Surely this is another facile distinction.  Society evolves and changes, and as it does so, so we develop new and hopefully better rules to live by.  It’s uneven progress, but we are more egalitarian today.

Could we change talking about ‘individual rights’ to ‘agreed rules to live by’.  As my Roundtable suggested, one touchstone should be “the general welfare of … society” [xii]  A life worth living is one where we share the same rules to live by with everyone else, (and Peter Singer would ask us to extend that logic to the animal world as well).  Certainly, even in humankind, there is still more to be done to reach that point.


[i] Most of the group were moderately conservative, but I felt I had moved them to think more broadly.  However, when the group continued after I left for the US, I read one of their later statements, a commentary on the ills of Australia and how they could be tackled – by restoring good old Anglo-Saxon virtues and policies.  They had several arguments to support their views, but what they offered was an unashamedly conservative agenda.

[ii] <http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/>

[iii] < https://www.humanrightscommission.vic.gov.au/human-rights/the-charter>  Did we add anything? They were probably thinking about responsibilities anyway.

[iv] https://www.legislation.gov.au/Details/C2017B00161 The first stage in creating legislation, the first and second readings, were presented on 14 August 2017; reviewed by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights on 5 September 2017; and removed from further consideration on 24 February 2018

[v] <https://www.lawteacher.net/free-law-essays/administrative-law/should-australia-have-a-bill-of-rights-administrative-law-essay.php>

[vi] <https://www.economist.com/open-future/2018/08/29/the-literature-of-liberalism.>

[vii] Interview for Woman’s Own, September 23, 1987, < https://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/106689>

[viii] Tao Te Ching, LVII, 132.

[ix] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Oxford University Press, 1972, pages 136-142

[x] <https://aeon.co/essays/aztec-moral-philosophy-didnt-expect-anyone-to-be-a-saint>

[xi] From Fay Alberti’s essay on loneliness <https://aeon.co/ideas/one-is-the-loneliest-number-the-history-of-a-western-problem>

[xii] See Article 4, op cit, and quoted earlier.