Rights & Freedoms as a Hallmark of Modernity
As we discussed in the previous Idea, the social and intellectual trends toward greater individualism and free will brought about an increasing desire for liberty. The concept of liberty began as relief from oppression and injustice, primarily of a political and religious nature. But in time it evolved into something much greater and more encompassing—the idea that all individuals are free to choose their own destiny. In order to do so, the individual must possess certain rights that exist regardless of the political and social order in which he lives. The need to codify, protect and support these rights created a demand for a type of government that could guarantee and protect each individual’s rights against the claims of others. This, in turn, led to the revolutionary idea of a government rendered legitimate by the consent of the ruled, and the need for the rule of law to safeguards the rights of every individual.
The long and difficult process of defining what constitutes a human right led, ultimately, to the drafting of various documents by lawmakers, rulers and governing bodies in many parts of the world. These seminal texts sought to clearly define the rights and freedoms that we can all agree are indispensable, i.e., the rights and freedoms that constitute liberty. Among these documents are the British Bill of Rights (1689), the United States Bill of Rights (1791), the French Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789), the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), and the European Convention on Human Rights (1953).
While written in different historical moments and in reaction to specific historical circumstances, all these efforts sought to establish a minimum standard of human and civil entitlement. Despite their differences, their cumulative effect is the creation of a basic set of rights and freedoms that anyone living in a progressive, democratic 21st-century society would recognise, and are now enshrined in most national constitutions. Pared down to their most elemental definition, they comprise the following:
Right to life, dignity and security of person
Right to fair treatment under the law
Right to participate in government
Right to own and trade property
Right to education
Right to marriage and family
Right to privacy
Freedom of peaceful assembly and association
Freedom of thought, conscience and religion
Freedom of opinion and expression
Freedom to work and choose employment
Right to equal access to public services
Freedom of movement
Right to a nationality/citizenship
Right to participate in cultural expressions
In many societies today, an individual can expect these fundamental rights and freedoms to be protected by the state. Of course, living in an organised society entails certain limitations on the behaviour of the individual. Just as I have a right to life and to property, so does my neighbour. This means that I cannot kill him with impunity, or steal his property, even though, as some may argue, violence and greed are natural instincts. This, in essence, is the social contract that political philosophers have discussed since the seventeenth century, foremost among them Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The social contract is a compact that individuals enter into when they agree to live together in an organised society. In an extremely simplified form, it is an individual’s agreement to relinquish certain impulses and desires to ensure that others do the same. Thus, for example, I agree to give up the desire to injure my neighbour and seize his property provided that he does the same.
A fundamental ingredient of the social contract is that the citizens of a society delegate the authority to pass laws and enforce them (i.e., to ensure that everyone’s basic rights are respected) to a person, institution, or group. This entity—the government—may be a monarch or a democratically elected group of officers, but regardless of its number or composition, it is understood to wield absolute power (also known as sovereignty) over the society that has delegated it, within the bounds of the laws established by that same society. In modern political thought, the primary purpose of government is to safeguard everyone’s rights and freedoms by establishing and maintaining a balance between the rights of one individual and those of another.
Limitations of First Dimension Rights and Freedoms
In a classical rendition, liberty is the freedom to do whatever the individual wishes, provided no harm comes to others as a result of his actions. In a simple example, I may own a sports car with a powerful engine, and enjoy driving it very fast. However, driving too fast on roads that I share with other motorists is likely to lead to accidents, resulting in injury to my fellow motorists and damage to their vehicles. Accordingly, the government steps in and curtails my freedom to use my property (my sports car) as I like, by setting a speed limit. If I exceed it, I am now liable for punishment. Thus the government has effectively balanced my personal freedom with everyone else’s right to life and safety. This adequately describes a First Dimension trade-off in which the concept of rights and freedoms under a social contract works well.
Let us turn now to a more difficult case that exemplifies the dilemmas faced by complex, highly interconnected 21st century societies. Let us say that I am a wealthy citizen, and that I own a large home that requires a lot of energy to heat in the winter and to air-condition in the summer. I also own several large cars that use a lot of petrol. So it’s fair to say that I consume a disproportionate amount of energy. However, none of my actions is harming any of my neighbours. I’m simply exercising my right to property—by owning a large home with many appliances in it, as well as multiple vehicles—and my right to privacy, in that what I do in my own home is nobody else’s business, as long as I’m not breaking any laws. In short, I’m infringing upon no-one else’s First Dimension rights. The government or the local energy company may try to discourage my excessive consumption of energy by billing above-average use at a higher rate, but as long as I can afford it, there is nothing to stop me from continuing with my energy-intensive lifestyle.
Now consider the fact that my immoderate consumption is generating a disproportionate amount of air pollution and carbon release, so that I’m contributing more than most to atmospheric pollution, global warming, and climate change. Thus, without doing anything wrong according to the laws of my society, I’m acting against the greater good of the global community. I am, in fact, infringing upon the unspoken rights to health and safety owed to all other human beings, including people whom I’ve never met, who may live thousands of kilometres away, or, indeed, people who may not even be born yet.
Though simplistic, this example demonstrates the unavoidable interconnectedness of life in our times. No action taken by an individual, however small and private and seemingly harmless, can be evaluated in isolation and exonerated from responsibility to society. All actions have consequences, sometimes distant and unintended, but nevertheless far-reaching and profound. The First Dimension rights and freedoms that we all understand and agree on are simply not equipped to be applied to the complex, multidimensional reality of today.
Liberty has been a seminal and powerful idea that helped us to transition from primitive and often violent and unfair forms of social organisation to the more stable and enlightened forms that we enjoy today—democracy, justice, freedom of expression. But like so many First Dimension ideas, it is no longer sufficient. First Dimension rights and freedoms, therefore, must be expanded in scope and meaning in order to remain relevant in higher dimensions.
Rights and Freedoms in Higher Dimensions
We can begin to rewrite our entire understanding of human rights and freedoms by analysing in greater detail the first and most fundamental of all First Dimension rights, namely, the right to life, dignity and security. A few paragraphs ago, we listed this right, as well as other rights and freedoms, in a very succinct manner. But the right to life is far more extensive than its one-line definition suggests.
In the first column of the table below we have first of all unpacked its current meaning. The right to life, dignity and security is defined more precisely as the right to be protected from violence and crime, or any form of brute force; the assurance that we won’t be killed arbitrarily by those in power; the certainty that we will not be tortured or humiliated; and, in some countries at least, the knowledge that even if guilty of a crime, we will not be subjected to the death penalty. This definition of the right to life corresponds largely to a First Dimension view and to what many societies in Europe and other parts of the world put in place in the second half of the 20th century. Many developing countries, however, continue to struggle to achieve simple First Dimension rights even today.
In the second column, the right to life has been expanded even further in accordance to a vision of a more enlightened future. Simply put, the First Dimension right to life, by itself, is not enough. It guarantees safety from violence and execution, but it does not address the issue of the quality of life. Safety from violence may be sufficient to overcome injustice in a primitive society in which might is right, but it fails to yield the comprehensive well-being that we expect in a more advanced civilisation. After all, how valuable is life, if it is lived in misery? How valuable is life, if the citizen has no access to fundamental benefits like clean air to breathe, safe drinking water, free and effective health care when ill or injured? How good is a life spent in hunger? How fair is life if it is continually exposed to hidden hazards, like pollutants in the goods we use daily, or toxic chemical additives in the food we consume?
In the Second Dimension, certain benefits will be indispensable for a wholesome and fulfilling life—a life that’s worth living. By explicitly including, in the definition of the right to life, essentials like clean air and water, peaceful environments, health care, nutrition, and modern living standards, we hope to build a new understanding of that right, and to encourage governments everywhere (not just in rich countries) to guarantee these benefits with the same commitment as they guarantee the sanctity of life.
Right to life, dignity & security of person:
Right to be protected from violence and crime
Freedom from arbitrary execution
Freedom from death penalty
Freedom from illegal detention and torture
Right to clean air
Right to clean drinking water
Right to beautiful urban & natural surroundings
Right to access open parklands and wilderness areas near one's residence
Freedom from toxic contaminants in our food, water and communities
Right to peaceful & violence-free habitat
Right to safe environments for women
Right to free healthcare & palliative care
Right to adequate nutrition
Right to a dignified standard of living
Access to hygienic, discreet public toilet facilities
Right to respectful treatment in all circumstances
Right to contemplation, including necessary time, venues and support
Right to a level of mindfulness in all citizens
Right to a level of compassion in all citizens
Rights of unborn generations
Right to choose to live in collectives that support us in developing our consciousness
Right to life and dignity extended to all living beings
Finally, in the last column, rights and freedoms have been expanded even further to include benefits that we may well consider overly difficult to achieve, overly sophisticated and esoteric, and unviable. But in the Third Dimension they will, in fact, form the core of human interaction. Under the right to life, Third Dimension entitlements include access to beauty, manifest in urban design and public art; access to wilderness areas within everyone’s reach; and the setting aside of adequate spaces, and sufficient time, to allow every citizen to engage in contemplative pursuits.
Above all, in the Third Dimension every citizen will expect a heightened level of mindfulness and compassion in his neighbours and fellow citizens, to match his own. In other words, it will be the responsibility of the society as a whole—including individuals, enterprises, voluntary associations, and especially government agencies—to ensure that every adult individual expresses the requisite level of consciousness and patience, such that interactions among all citizens will be exclusively peaceful and cooperative. This will be achieved through the reformation of education, governance, ownership, the free-market economy, and justice—all subjects that are treated in detail in the other Idea pages of this site. Reformation of society to such a radical degree may seem like an extremely tall order now, but it is the ultimate goal of our Movement.