When Rights are Wrong

Our neighbor just forced us to cut our beautiful spruce tree in half because it was overhanging his property. Under Quebec law, he’s entitled. I also had to take out our lovely honeysuckle and lilac flowering bushes that were growing through his wire fence. His side of the line is now desolate, but he seems pleased. He demanded his rights; he got them.

Good ethical decisions take time, deliberation and integrity — three things in short supply these days. Rather then think, the lazy fall back on legal or religious codes. In either case, you get to feel ‘right’ with minimal effort and risk.

I always presumed that legal rights should do good, but I’ve been disappointed more than once. A judge once told me from the bench, ‘This court has no mandate to be fair, only to apply the law.’

Perhaps I’m naïve, but I’m reluctant to let go of it.

The world will never be perfect, but we can strive for something better than this. I survived the cold war and count my blessings to not be living in a Nazi or Stalinist state, but today’s status quo leaves much to be desired.

It’s good that we don’t have to believe in God, but can if we choose. It’s good that our gender, skin color, sexuality and age can’t be legally held against us. Still, the right to live on the fringes of conventional life still comes at a price.

If you think rights are dodgy, freedoms are even worse

There are more dubious rights: for individuals to own billions of dollars and ignore the poor; to manipulate millions into buying and consuming stuff that makes them sick; to use the law for strategic gain rather than the public good. Your neighbor can still sue you into doing something ridiculous.

Ancient religious codes were often corrupt. Legal codes are supposed to be more enlightened, but how different can they be when both are drawn up by the rich and powerful? They’re designed to sustain the institutions they represent, and are only incidentally aligned with cause-and-effect, self-knowledge and human empathy.

Apparently, the real world is more sophisticated.

The trouble is, we’re founding a future in which we’re not obliged to listen to our body and minds. We submit to systems that make us dependent on rights, not clear thinking, that encourage us to sustain the status quo with scant concern for whether it’s right — or even whether it’s worthwhile.

Isn’t that what ethics is for? Rights are about what’s legal allowable, but the right life is a life worth living, with purpose and meaning.

We submit to systems that make us
dependent on rights, not clear thinking

If you think rights are dodgy, freedoms are even worse. Forget about personal freedom from base motives or from the tyranny of compulsive thoughts, today’s great freedom is the freedom to choose. Soon the entire human race will stand baffled in supermarket and pharmacy aisles agonizing over the right lifestyle choices. We already spend hours on the Internet, constantly sidetracked by fascinating tidbits and feverishly refreshing our inbox for new messages. We’re free to expend our libido on pornography without facing the complexities of human relationships, free to have children without really raising them, without even having meaningful conversation with them.

When we no longer feel it necessary to take a stand based on our own experience, merely on legal codes, we might as well be living in an authoritarian state. The great democracies today show signs of slipping in that general direction.

We’re distracted by the ‘debate’ between science and religion. Both are sometimes ethically right, sometimes wrong. Neither exist as objective realities. They’re just different expressions of human thought and behavior, replete with politics and self-interest. Most people are a somewhat scientific, somewhat religious and mostly impulsive. Science and religion work best when subjected to individual discrimination. But those who ask awkward questions risk being wrong. They also risk being excluded.

What peace and sanity we have is as fragile as life itself

I’m not too pessimistic about the future. The human race has done well in some ways. Economics is gradually displacing war as the basic exercise of self-interest and that may be a good thing, though it’s far from sure. Nevertheless, the notion that progress is our birthright leading inevitably to a utopian future is an unhealthy myth. What peace and sanity we have is as fragile as life itself. We cannot sit on our laurels.

Every act of rebellion,” wrote Albert Camus, “expresses a nostalgia for innocence and an appeal to the essence of being.

I sense a reaction brewing. Here in Quebec where social engineering is disguised as the defense of language, where the threat of English is an excuse to abdicate authentic government, I sense healthy outrage. In the news today I read about an abandoned Toronto Mayor claiming that “Everything’s great,” a jittery Prime Minister trying to manage unmanageable secrets, and a former chairman of the Security and Intelligence Review Committee in jail for fraud. The cracks are showing.

And that’s just this week in polite little Canada.

I dream of constant personal revolution

Is the wheel turning once more? Perhaps the Occupy Movement is the overdue heir to the broken counter-culture. The time may have come for a sharp, painful turn in modern society.

And that’s the easy part. The real challenge is to build a new way. It’s not going to happen through leadership alone. For it not to fail, those who make it happen must begin the revolution in their hearts, determined to keep rights in perspective and to pursue the good. I dream of constant personal revolution.

There’s more to mindfulness, and especially to mindful reflection, than sedate attention and loving-kindness. It requires us to skewer our treasured privileges and protections, to hold them up for closer inspection. We need to see their real cost, to renounce the complacency they breed and, above all, to undermine the noxious greed that flourishes today across the globe.

Mindful reflection is seditious, meant to undermine, doubt and reassess our most basic values and motivations. Band-aids can’t cure the inner rot. We need to cultivate razor-sharp, fearless discernment. How can we question our own motives without questioning the goals of the society that formed us? We are not independent of it.

If there is any freedom worth pursuing, it’s not the one to choose the best toothpaste and new smart phone, not to protect our personal rights, but to chuck everything to the wind and not believe one more goddamn lie.


Author: Stephen Schettini

Host of The Naked Monk

17 thoughts on “When Rights are Wrong”

  1. Great post. The list of injustices are endless, it’s hard not to throw up our hands and say ‘What can you do?’ It’s today’s mantra.
    FYI. I want to ‘like’ for fb friends but the button’s not working. Hope you can fix. Glad to give a thumbs up too.

  2. Thanks Carly. Yes, that’s the second time Fb goes down just as I post. Beyond my control I’m afraid. Tried calling Zuckerberg, but no answer.

  3. Oh, you pushed one of my buttons here.

    I can tell you from direct personal experience that the only legal rights you have are the ones that you can afford to defend. And if the person you are trying to defend against has deep pockets or is willing to outspend you, you are in trouble. If you had been willing to spend enough money, maybe “fight dirty”, you might have been able to save those plants.

    There’s a difference between a legal system and a social structure that promotes justice, ethics, the welfare of all.

    This is an article about some judges in Wisconsin and their views on how the two things intersect.


    I worked for many years in the pension industry in the US. It is one of the most heavily legislated areas of the tax code. There was a constant push and pull between people trying to use the law to benefit the most people, the poorest, the least powerful and those wanting to use the law to benefit the richest and most powerful. Laws were passed which were a “compromise” between these two factions. The law governing a formerly predominant, and the most secure type of pension for individuals, finally became so overwhelmed that it was literally impossible to interpret the law – it simply didn’t make sense and couldn’t be implemented. As a result these plans have largely been abandoned and the financial security of millions has been destroyed.

    I think this has had another effect that I haven’t seen written about anywhere. The kind of plans that were abandoned made it important to corporations, unions, and governments which sponsored these plans that the investment market be safe and sane. These plans were a huge percent of the investment market and a significant piece of the corporate budget. Once they were gone, business leaders in our country lost an important incentive to keep Wall Street a fair and safe place to invest. The change occurred over about 30 years and roughly along the same timeline as the deregulation of Wall Street and the ensuing financial mess.

    Coincidence? I don’t think so.

  4. Enjoyed your post. Very pertinent to my country, Australia, where decent people are aghast that our government is keeping 1000 child asylum seekers in indefinite detention and both major political parties support this.

    1. The problem with democracy is that it’s so comfortable. Most of the fortunate minority that’s grown up in the free world never imagines that its rights might be compromised, but that’s exactly what makes that sort of compromise possible. Taking it for granted, and the notion that progress is inevitable and the world is destined for democracy and social progress, is long-term wishful thinking. Technological progress is not social progress. It’s the 21st century opium of the people.

  5. I recently had a neighbor exercise his legal rights against me. It wasn’t his rights I minded, but the fact that he chose not to come to talk to me. Instead he called the authorities who threatened me with fines for non compliance, and entangled me in a paperwork net. A neighborly talk would have sufficed.

  6. OK, I’ll bite.

    I’m not looking forward to the revolution, personally. As much as we love to hate it, representative democracy exists, not to provide peace and harmony, but to facilitate conflict in such a way as to minimize violence, intimidation and insecurity. We may not like the results (although, when you think about it, having water run when you turn on the tap and having people come put out your house when it catches fire are much preferable to the alternatives), but rights and legal freedoms are the mechanism by which we can have a society which, at least sometimes, does not consist of the enslavement of the weak by the powerful. I would suggest that the reason our democracies don’t work better than they do is because people prefer to sit back, complain, enjoy the fruits of their society as consumers and refuse to get involved (they’re all crooks, you know, it’s all a sham, etc). I submit that if 75 percent of eligible voters spent a few hours a year learning about the issues and then showed up to vote in their own self interest, the revolution would be unnecessary. Such a society would still be messy, unfair, and productive of all sorts of criminality, because it is about conflict and people trying to take advantage, as every other social system has ever been (government, like all conditioned things, is dukkha). But in this system, we can, if we are willing to work hard at it, change things.

    By the way, on our public radio folk music show last night, I heard a woman singing a song entitled “I Want to Be a Canadian,” rapsodizing about how much your society is to be prefered over ours.

    1. I understand your reluctance Mark. Revolution on your side of the border promises to be bloody and unforgiving. However, our current Federal Canadian government aspires to a new Canada: GW-Bush-style, and I think polite Canadians need to be much more vocally resistant than they’re accustomed to. Revolution doesn’t have to be violent but if does have to be passionate.

  7. Great post, Stephen. The problem with legally defensible “rights” in our over-regulated, over-indulged world is that people, collectively, seem to feel not only entitled but also invincible. Dare to make waves and we’ll beat you into submission. As you know, my kid (11 years old) is a visible minority, small for her age. Last month, when she told a school supervisor that some older kids were calling her a “slant-eyed midget”, she was basically told to suck it up and stop complaining. She didn’t, of course. And nor did I. I’ll spare you the details, but I don’t think the supervisor will be teaching that particular life lesson again. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom to bully and insult people, although if you read some of the comments posted on public forums these days, you’d be forgiven for thinking the opposite.
    If there’s a glimmer of hope, it’s that the latest generation – my kid’s generation – seems less willing to roll over and play dead in the face of unacceptable behaviour. Last weekend, for example, we were having dinner on a terrace in Old Montreal and one of our guests asked the waiter if smoking was allowed. Upon being told that it was, he ordered an ashtray and said to us: “You don’t mind, do you?”, clearly expecting us to smile politely and suffer the consequences. Imagine his surprise when my kid replied: “Actually I do mind. You shouldn’t smoke around kids. It’s bad for them.” I’m pleased she understands that legally permitted behaviour can also be ethically reprehensible. It’s a lesson some adults seem unable to learn. Dunes Lake, anyone?

  8. “I always presumed that legal rights should do good, but I’ve been disappointed more than once. A judge once told me from the bench, ‘This court has no mandate to be fair, only to apply the law.'”

    I’d guess that the law in Canada and the US is no different when it comes to favoring jurisprudence over justice. Lawyers can pontificate endlessly about the details of the legal system but draw a blank when asked, “What is right or ethical?” They don’t care or even know. Maybe it’s not in their job description.

    But isn’t that one of the reasons we meditate and follow spiritual paths? I guess the one thing I’m still trying to understand is this notion that there are no “objective realities” I want to believe in good and evil possibly because I see examples of each every day. But then again a rich man’s justice is different than a poor man’s justice. I guess it’s a matter of perspective.

    One thing I believe is “true” and that is the old cliche, If you desire peace, cultivate justice. The US is being torn apart by the political fight over democracy or justice which barely functions here in the US. I would call the US a plutocracy. I hope Canada doesn’t follow our bad example.

    Nice post, Stephen.

  9. This post is right on. During the 1980s, before the Internet age, I felt stalled for over a decade and I called it the Curse of Choices. Coming from the US and brought up lower middle class I thought I was very helmed with choices. When I travelled through Asia I would see young men with families and envied them and what I perceived as their lack of choices, which I told myself, in my delusion, made them live in the moment more.
    I cannot imagine the choices some people are faced with and some without. Thanks, Naked MOnk, for this insightful post, again.

  10. Stephen

    I empathize with you sir, as I am a ressident of Ontario yet my family has been in Montreal for the past 20 years and I have been a fairly objective witness to the deterioration of the City over these 2 decades.
    Amazing for a province as yours to UPHOLD citizen laws only to distract from CIty and Provincial LAws most of which have been corrupt for years (as apparent in the Media lately).
    the sad-dest part about Quebec presently is the with the outflow of significant INDUSTRIES and the influx of Undergroung crime, what is to sustain the economical status quo (already poor) if criminality is to be impeded?

    Sadly, your problem is a legitimate quandry in the wrong land.
    Leave Quebec to anywhere in Canada,
    “et crois moi monsieur, ca ne sera que pour ton bien”.

    Sorry about the diversion from the topic at hand, but as soon as you mention Quebec to me (such a beautiful land, in the hands of megalomanic Officials), my sensibilities go down the “Bidet”.


    1. Quebec may be politically bankrupt, and almost financially so as well, but I like it here. It has panache. The people are not at all the way our political leaders would have us believe. I hate the demagoguery, though.

  11. Yes the post and even all of the comments are very good. Yes, my whole purpose in lif is to peel back the layers of lies that I base my life on. Naively I alsays believed that everyone wanted to know the truth. I have met many persons who tell me that what they value most Isn another person is honesty. Of course it is different when I am actually honest with them.

    To me, Buddhist practice is about dissecting the notions that I have built my life on everyday to see if they are really true. It has taken. years of working at it but I have chucked many lies . It really is the most important thing in life.

  12. Back in 1924 John Fletcher Moulton, a British judge, laid out “three great domains of human action”: the area governed by laws which we have to obey, the area of free choice in which we can act as we wish, and the domain of “Obedience to the Unenforceable”. He described this last as “the obedience of a man to that which he cannot be forced to obey. He is the enforcer of the law upon himself,” and went on to say that “the real greatness of a nation, its true civilization, is measured by the extent to which the individuals composing the nation can be trusted to obey self-imposed law” – that is, not rely on regulations to solve the conflicts they encounter.

    It’s easy to encroach on that middle ground between absolute choice and positive law, because its survival requires the individual to exercise moral sense, and to consider one’s duties and responsibilities, rather than one’s rights – which requires effort and is highly unfashionable!

    The “time, deliberation and integrity” required for good ethical decisions falls smack into the domain of the Obedience to the Unenforceable. For many years I made a point of teaching Moulton to my engineering ethics students, hoping to encourage them to see a middle way in the conflicts they’d encounter over the years. (Believe me, it ain’t easy trying to slip a bit of quasi-dharma into engineering courses without being caught!)

    Now me, I’d have been thrilled to benefit from your green fingers and your flowering shrubs. Having to destroy healthy plants is painful. As is unfairness.

  13. Hmmm

    I just re-read your post and the comments. There is a lot going on here. A lot of stuff I agree with or find interesting. Some stuff I don’t agree with and also find interesting.

    But – it all started with your lilac and honeysuckle. And the assumption that chopping them off is a bad thing. Now your neighbor’s property is “desolate”.


    He doesn’t think so.

    Honeysuckle can be an invasive weed. Was it spreading into his yard and making work for him to clear it out? What did that lilac look like anyway? Old and huge and scrappy with very few flowers? Were these shrubs shading his lawn, a flower garden, a vegetable garden? Blocking his view of the sky or some other vista? I know people who are very allergic to lilac. Some people find large shrubs scary (bad guys can hide in them). Some people just like the look of a lawn and wide open spaces. People are amazingly emotional about the plants around them.

    I love lilac. Don’t mind honeysuckle even if it is a weed. Think the lawn should disappear from the urban landscape. I think the desert is desolate. Other people love the desert. Some think a golf course is the most beautiful thing ever. I love trees. Many of America’s early pioneers found them frightening and cut them down just to get rid of them. (Little House on the Prairie comes to mind. The Living by Annie Dillard.)

    Maybe the law did just what we would want it to do here: provided a way of settling a dispute between two equally “right” individuals.

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