Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Function of Rights

The set up of the US Constitution--and all modern democracies--is brilliant.  It/they balance two important principles:

1. Majority rule
2. Individual rights

1. Majority rule
The idea of majority rule in itself is a great privilege, although not without potential pitfalls. It is a privilege because we are not ruled by a dictator who can oppress the majority. Its danger is mob rule, where the majority rule in a self-destructive way or a way that oppresses a minority group.  This is why it is important to have an educated majority that understands the nature of self-governance.

2. Individual rights
"The greater good for the greater number" (utilitarianism) is the fundamental assumption of a democracy. It is important to balance this ethical principle out with a second, "without violating individual rights."  The Bill of Rights, the first amendments to the US Constitution, provide protections for these rights.

They include famous rights like 1) freedom of religion, 2) freedom of speech, 3) freedom to keep arms, 4) right to a speedy trial, 5) etc...

The rights aren't absolute.  Judges have to decide which is more important in certain certain circumstances. Judges also have to decide when they trump majority rule. Also, rights do not apply to all citizens. Criminals, for example, can have certain diminished rights.  The government can also institute martial law in a time of chaos.

These dynamics are all in play right now on a number of issues. I doubt we have done a good job as a nation teaching these principles to the populace. My impression is that Americans use whichever principle works for what they want: "I've got my rights" and "Majority rules."  What they don't have a good sense of is how these two connect to each other.

1 comment:

Angie Van De Merwe said...
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