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'RIGHTS AND OBLIGATIONS'
CAERS SUBSTACK ARTICLE #30
‘RIGHTS AND OBLIGATIONS’
CAERS SUBSTACK ARTICLE #30
In a previous article (Article #7, ‘Freedom, Democracy and Ethics’) I discussed the concept of freedom, and part of that was an exploration of internal versus external freedoms. When we think of freedom, we often think of rights insomuch as freedom entails having rights and being able to express those rights. Much as there are internal and external freedoms, there are positive rights, the right to follow our aspirations such as free speech, and negative rights, the right not to having something forced upon us, like imprisonment for no reason. Without such rights freedom would be a rather meaningless idea.
What many forget is that rights cannot exist without obligations—the two are the necessary and complementary aspects of freedom. You cannot have a right without me having an obligation to respect your right. It is tempting to focus more on rights than obligations because rights are something we get and obligations are something we must give. But realistically we must balance the two if we want to live in a harmonious and respectful society.
Which means that the rights and obligations that constitute freedom require that we accept responsibility for our actions. If we want to avoid situations in which we fail to meet our obligations to others, it requires that we exercise our freedom wisely. When we fall short, being held accountable for our poor decisions can be a lonely and painful place.
Positions of leadership offer opportunities for power, which involve having rights for opportunities not afforded to others. Not surprisingly, it means greater obligations as well. It is completely understandable that the pressure of these increased obligations weighs heavily on those in positions of leadership, and that makes the acceptance of responsibility even more painful when things go wrong.
It is important for followers not to ascribe blame to leaders that is unjustified. It is equally important for leaders not to take credit that is unjustified as well, no matter how tempting. In other words, no one should be expected to assume a level of responsibility for that for which they do not have appropriate authority; neither should anyone have a level of authority for which they are not held appropriately responsible.
Leaders would be wise to remember that although their positions grant them more rights than those they lead, that should not diminish the fundamental rights of those they lead. Those of us in followership roles must do all we can to guarantee that these rights are protected. We should always be wary of any individual or group, especially those in leadership roles, who want to deprive another person of their rights without a process that demands transparent justification and includes a mechanism of appeal.
This legitimacy of rights is based on the concept of the inherent worth of each individual, and corroborated by our assumption that they possess the capacity to exercise those rights unless we can prove otherwise. This principle forms the foundation of consent in medical practice.
Good leaders hold themselves accountable for their decisions and understand that such a process involves transparency and respectful questioning by those they lead. Good leaders do not shy away from difficult topics and discussions. They do not sweep uncomfortable issues under the carpet, or unduly minimize the significance of legitimate problems.
Have the concepts of rights and obligations, responsibility and authority, been sufficiently emphasized during the pandemic? Have the various decisions made by those in positions of power been consistent with these concepts? Are there things that should be done differently when we face the next pandemic or other crisis?
Let us hope that those who have led us during the pandemic are prepared to confirm that they have wielded their authority wisely. We have the right to know if they have, and they have an obligation to clarify that for us.
J. Barry Engelhardt MD (retired) MHSc (bioethics)
CAERS Health Intake Facilitator
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