In the Andes, where I have spent much time in the past 20 years, the concept of "Ayni" (reciprocity) is embedded into every aspect of society. So deep in the culture that the words "my / mine" do not exist, only exist "ours."
We often affirm and prioritize our rights as members of a dynamic, multifaceted society. We stand firm in the belief in our entitlements to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, a stance amplified by the hyper-individualistic culture that dominates Western societies. And this has also been sadly very present in the modern "healing culture," the new age world, and the often quite distorted version of contemporary shamanism.
But another side of the coin is less attended to – obligations.
The principle of giving as much as we get connects to a sense of mutual responsibility and interconnectedness. In many traditional native cultures, rights and obligations coexisted harmoniously, creating a delicate balance of power that fostered a profound feeling of belonging and reciprocity. Each individual's actions would inevitably influence others, creating a cycle of shared destiny.
This balancing act, where rights and obligations are two sides of a single societal coin, is significantly absent in our modern Western context. Whether war and peace, free speech, or freedom of choice, the discourse often revolves around rights devoid of obligations. This article explores this dichotomy, delving into the consequences of this imbalance and imagining a future where such a balance exists.
The Western Cultural Context
In Western societies, the narrative of individual success and freedom has often been seen as the ultimate goal. The Western ethos, with roots tracing back to Descartes' philosophical assertion, "Cogito, ergo sum" (I think, therefore I am), prioritizes individual identity and personal rights over community obligations and mutual responsibility. I often wonder what society would look like if Descartes had preached, "We think, therefore we are."
This narrative encourages a hyper-individualistic culture that champions private rights, often overshadowing our obligations towards our community.
"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent." - John Donne.
So what happened? This individualistic mindset prevalent in the West encouraged us to safeguard our rights tirelessly without much regard for the collective consequences.
The Ancient Native Context
Conversely, the indigenous or native cultures worldwide held different worldviews (as I illustrated with the concept of Ayni in the Andes).
In these cultures, the community's well-being was/is paramount, often placed above individual desires or ambitions. These societies embraced the inseparable nexus between rights and obligations as the core of their societal structure, life, language, traditions, and political discourse.
In these cultures, to claim certain rights, one also had to acknowledge and reciprocate with corresponding responsibilities. This belief fostered a symbiotic relationship, creating a community-driven balance of power that was both sustainable and harmonious. Every individual's actions were seen in the light of their impact on the community, fostering a strong sense of collective belonging and mutual responsibility.
"We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, to love… and then we return home." - Australian Aboriginal Proverb.
Rights and Obligations in Various Areas
In the realm of war and peace, the discourse is often centered on the rights of nations - to sovereignty, to defense, and to political agency - but rarely on their obligations – to diplomacy, to global peace, or to humanitarian standards. Such a dynamic can be traced back to the concept of "just war," a part of Western military ethics, which provides nations with a moral and legal justification for war while grappling less with the inherent obligations to maintain peace.
In free speech, while we ardently herald the right to express our thoughts freely and openly, we tend to forget the associated obligations— to tell the truth, respect others' dignity, and foster an equitable discourse.
Turning to freedom of choice, the narrative emphasizes an individual's right to choose their desires. However, more needs to be said about the obligation to consider the impact of those choices on others and society.
Rights, Obligations, and Our Planet
We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children." - Native American Proverb.
Residing within consumerism, resource extraction, and environmental degradation, we find another illustration of the rights-obligation imbalance. The West, driven by capitalist economic structures, prizes consumers' right to choose, focussing on meeting insatiable demands, often fuelled by unchecked consumerism, to possess, consume, and discard at will.
These practices hinge on the extraction of resources at alarming rates, asserting our "right" over nature's bounty. Little consideration is given to our obligations towards our planet, responsibilities multiple indigenous cultures have upheld for generations - to consume consciously, extract sustainably, and protect our planet diligently. The impacts of this lopsided approach are nothing short of catastrophic - climate change, widespread species extinction, and environmental degradation.
Turning the tide requires a distinct shift towards our obligations - a move towards conscious consumption, sustainable economies, and renewed reverence towards Earth. Recognizing the fundamental rights of Mother Nature, as some indigenous cultures and even specific modern legal systems have begun to advocate (see Costa Rica embedding the right of the Earth in their constitution) while acknowledging our obligations towards the planet, could pave the way for more sustainable, balanced interactions with our shared home.
"When all the trees have been cut down, when all the animals have been hunted, when all the waters are polluted, when all the air is unsafe to breathe, only then will you discover you cannot eat money." - Cree Prophecy
Consider the majesty of our beautiful Earth. It is up to us to preserve and treasure it. When was the last time you thought about the implications of your consumer habits on the environment?
Rights without Obligations – The Lack of Balance
What is often not seen or discussed, which troubles me deeply, is that this emphasis on rights without paralleled obligations profoundly impacts our societal structures. It disrupts the equilibrium of power and cooperation, forming cracks in the veneer of our collective interaction, leading to societal fractions that manifest in multiple forms.
One significant consequence is the occurrence of war and conflicts. The stance of 'might make right,' often devoid of any sense of obligation towards diplomacy or peace, breeds violent confrontations. The pursuit of self-interest by nations, emphasized by their 'rights,' tends to overlook obligations to maintain global peace, resulting in a world where war becomes a recurrent event.
In the context of free speech, the sidelining of obligations can contribute to spreading misinformation. Freedom of speech, a highly valued and defended right, can sometimes overshadow the obligation to share truthful, respectful, and considerate content. Consequently, the information landscape gets clouded by false narratives, hate speech, and festering divisions.
Another manifestation lies in our economic structures, paving the way for rampant wealth disparity. The rights of individuals or corporations to amass wealth are often defended vigorously, whereas the obligations to contribute equitably to societal welfare are comparatively neglected. This leads to a gross imbalance in resource distribution, perpetuating economic inequality and social injustice.
This one-sided emphasis on rights also throws our relationship with the environment out of balance, leading to environmental degradation. The "right" to exploit natural resources does not come packaged with the obligation to preserve the integrity of ecosystems, resulting in an escalating climate crisis.
Moreover, this imbalance contradicts the profundity of interconnectedness that forms the bedrock of a functional, harmonious society. Let me repeat it: This imbalance contradicts the profundity of interconnectedness that forms the bedrock of a functional, harmonious society.
In sidelining our obligations, we neglect the intrinsically interwoven tapestry of our lives where every action leaves a ripple effect. By asserting our rights without being mindful of our commitments, we overlook how deeply our choices and activities can penetrate other's lives and the world we live in.
"Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it." - George Bernard Shaw.
Our perspective shifts when we view our life not as an isolated existence but as part of a more extensive interconnected system that includes other human beings, the environment, and the entire planet. These have been some of the most profound teachings and difficult healing I had to go through when embarking on walking my life through the "ancient teachings."
Incorporating obligations and recognizing the reciprocity and mutual responsibility that come with our rights can help rediscover this interconnectedness. It offers possibilities of a more equitable society where happiness and welfare are not confined to individuals but are shared phenomena reverberating through each of us and our planet. We cannot access individual or collective happiness and liberation without such a premise.
Imagining a Balanced Perspective
Restoring obligations alongside rights doesn't mean erasing individuality but embracing a more empathetic, considerate culture that acknowledges how deeply human and non-human lives are interwoven. Nations would have the right to defend themselves and an obligation to resolve conflicts peacefully. Individuals could exercise free speech while honoring their responsibility to promote truth and respect. Personal choices would be made, not in isolation, but in consideration of their broader societal implications.
This shift could manifest in numerous ways: educational curriculums embedding mutual respect and reciprocity, legal systems considering obligations as seriously as rights, and social narratives emphasizing our collective identity over divisive individualism.
Looking into the Future
"The future of mankind lies waiting for those who will come to understand their lives and take up their responsibilities to all living things." - Vine Deloria Jr., Sioux scholar, historian, and activist.
Adopting a balanced perspective of rights and obligations may seem challenging in an era dominated by individualistic paradigms and values. However, as we look into the future, we can draw hope from emerging movements that seek a more interconnected, sustainable, and equitable world. Championing social justice causes, environmental stewardship, and global peace, these movements embody the timeless wisdom of recognizing our rights and inherent obligations.
Speculations on the Resurgence of Obligations
We can anticipate a rebalancing of the scales where our obligations to one another and to our planet regain their importance. As it's at the root of my work, the more the root causes of our collective and individual sufferings are revealed and explored, the more we will be called to address them. If we were to adapt the lessons from traditional cultures to our modern landscape, we might see a shift in our education, justice, and culture paradigms.
Enforcing responsibilities, emphasizing empathy, and teaching reciprocity could lead to a generation that balances exercising personal rights with understanding societal obligations.
Moreover, at the heart of our legal systems and political institutions, the obligation to act in the public's interest could be as influential as defending individual rights. This could reshape the trajectory of policy-making, emphasizing restorative justice over punitive measures and cooperative internationalism over divisive nationalism.
In conclusion, exploring rights and obligations allows us to better understand the current state of our societal tendencies. It provides us an insight into how we can shape our shared future. Although the prevailing culture emphasizes our rights, it may be time we begin pulling the balance back, acknowledging the significant role of our obligations. It is time we learn and listen to the cultures and societies that have embraced those models and have demonstrated a much happier, freer, and healthier collective.
Understanding this balance is the first step; implementing it in our daily lives is the journey. How can you commit to its practice in your life? That is the question I am asking myself every day.
Reinstating this equilibrium does not mean undermining our individual rights but rather highlights the profound interconnectedness of our lives and reminds us of the ripple effect of our actions.
After all, we participate in the ongoing creation of our world not alone as individuals but collectively as part of an intricate social tapestry of beings, humans and non-humans. A prayer to a more connected and more loving world,