Passive Rights/Active Obligations and COERCION 

Passive Rights/Active Obligations and COERCION

by Jeff Quitney

Principles of moral right require corresponding priciples of moral obligation. Every moral right that a person has implies the corresponding obligation upon all other persons not to violate that right.

The various moral rights which people most often claim to possess include two basic types. The first type includes those rights which state that a person must be permitted to act freely in earning a living, choosing a mate, acquiring property, and the like. These I will call ACTIVE rights. The second type includes those rights which state that a person must be provided with certain things if he cannot provide them for himself. These I will call PASSIVE rights.

Active rights imply passive obligations, that is, obligations which basically require non-interference with the actions of others. Passive "rights" imply ACTIVE obligations. A passive "right to the necessities of life", if it exists, requires those capable to provide those in need with the necessities of life.

Consider the following situation: "A" is a well-off person, with sufficient means to provide for at least one other person besides himself. "B" is a needy person, unable to independently acquire the bare necessities of life. "B", learning that "A" is capable of providing for the both of them, lays claim to the necessities of life from "A", on the basis of his passive right to be provided with the necessities of life and thus A's active obligation to provide for him. "A" refuses to cooperate.

What next?

What should justly occur when the active obligation is not fulfilled, and thus the passive right is violated? When an ACTIVE right has been violated, the person whose right has been violated is entitled to obtain fair and just retribution from the person who violated his right. This often involves actions against the violator which would have violated his own rights had he not been a violator to begin with. Is the person whose passive right has been violated entitled to act is the same way? Does the person who failed to fulfill the active obligation ("A") forfeit his own ACTIVE rights so that fair and just retribution may be obtained from him, or does the violator in this case forfeit only his passive rights?

If "A" has forfeited only his passive rights, this will be of no help to "B". For "B" will be in no better position to obtain the necessities of life. Even if "A" forfeits his passive rights PERMANENTLY (or forfeits them intil he gives in and provides for "B"), "A" is not likely to consider the threat of finding himself destitute to be worth the expense of supporting "B" (this is especially true since "A" could not ve sure that anyone would support him in a time of need even if he did still possess his passive rights).

But can "A" be required to forfeit active rights as a penalty for violating passive ones? Not is the active rights are stronger than the passive ones. If "A" is coerced into supporting "B", this represents a serious violation of "A's" right to act freely. Are passive rights strong enough to justify this violation? Robert Nozick offered a strong statement that bears on this question:

"The man who chooses to work longer to gain an income more than sufficient for his basic needs prefers some extra goods or services to the leisure and activities he could perform during the possible non-working hours; whereas the man who chooses not to work the extra time prefers the leisure activities to the extra goods or services he could acquire by working more. Given this, if it would be illegitimate for a tax system to seize some of a man's leisure (forced labor) for the purpose of serving the needy, how can it be legitimate for a tax system to seize some of a man's goods for that purpose?"

(R. Nozick; Anarchy, State, and Utopia; Basic Books; New York; 1974; p.170)

A life does not consist merely in the LENGTH of its extension along a time base. Each and every moment of a life is an important part of that life. To deprive one of his right to act freely and as he chooses with his own living person is comparable to depriving him of his life (for what ever period he is deprived of acting freely). One who has been so deprived is deprived of any possible gain (not necessarily economic) from whatever else he might otherwise have chosen to do with his life during the period of deprivation. Any part of a life spent in forced labor to provide for others is a portion of that life removed.

In view of the strength of active rights, it is difficult to imagine an argument strong enough to justify coercion to enforce passive rights. Unless such an argument is produced, the use of compulsory taxation (equivalent to forced labor) of some persons to provide aid for some other persons can at best be construed as perpetrating a greater wrong in the hope of relieving a lesser wrong.