The Liberal sponsorship scandal, the Enron affair and the Parmalat case seem to be symptoms of a failure in modern Western culture. We put too much emphasis on individual rights and not enough on individual responsibilities. The public clamours for the individuals responsible for corporate and government failures to face the same sort of criminal prosecution as robbers and thieves. But our legal system is founded on a clear separation between criminal and civil law, and provides strict limits to individual responsibility for public and corporate leaders. Criminals who steal thousands from individual property owners are sent to prison for years, but those who 'misdirect' the public's millions receive dismissals and lavish pensions.
But the public cannot have it both ways. At the same time as demanding that government and corporate heads should roll, we are seemingly adamant about protecting our own rights to download music and pornography from the Internet and be free from criminal prosecution for smoking illegal pot. We want lower taxes while we work, but demand that governments provide high quality free health care for our aging parents. In short we want more rights for ourselves and more responsibilities for others.
Just about the only people who are demanding more responsibilities for themselves are gays and lesbians seeking marriage. But what so enrages conservatives about this is that gays and lesbians are claiming marriage as a right. Marriage has never been a right, only a responsibility - a set of duties and obligations that two people freely enter into.
Conservatives are correct in seeing the gay activists' view of marriage as a right as a threat to the institution of marriage, but they are ultimately wrong in opposing gay marriage. No one gets married because they think they are 'exercising their rights'. As anyone who is contemplating marriage realises, marriage is about embracing social and legal responsibilities to another human being. This is precisely what Canadian society needs.
by James Miller
Department of Religious Studies
Queen's University, Kingston, ON, Canada
Published: Kingston Whig-Standard, March 12, 2004