Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Rights, Freedoms and Privileges (Nov. 29, 2007)

Not long after I posted my blog post on breastfeeding, I had a telephone conversation with one of my readers, inquiring as to why I categorized breastfeeding as a right and not a freedom. That point, you will recall, was changed in the final wording of the Pennsylvania law.

So what is a right, anyway? What is a freedom? What's the difference? While we're at it, do either differ from a privilege in any substantive way?

Think of a right as an ability to act, an ability that already exists which is worth going to war to defend. As Americans we have rights to vote, to speak freely, and to worship as we choose, among many others. We go to war to defend these basic rights of citizenship, rights denied to citizens of other countries.

With privileges, you start at zero. These are earned in the eyes of some authority, and thus granted as well as revoked. Driving is a good example. You have to prove yourself worthy to be able to drive, and then adhere to agreed upon rules in order to continue the privilege. A lesser example is having a library card which allows you to borrow books and other materials. If you break the rules, e.g., you don't return what you borrowed, or damage them, the library revokes your borrowing privilege. The key here is that some formal process is administered by some authority. In general, you need to be a citizen to exercise either rights or privileges, though they may also be extended to legal resident non-citizens. (I am staying out of the illegal immigrant topic in this blog post.)

Freedoms lie somewhere in the middle. Just by being here, you get to exercise them, but some constraints might be imposed from time to time. Freedom to travel, for instance. You can pretty much go anywhere you want, but police may need to cordone off some area because of an emergency situation. On a personal basis, if you have run afoul of the law, perhaps you have had your freedom to travel restricted by means of court order, and issued an ankle bracelet that tracks your movements.

Back to breastfeeding. I described this as a human right, which falls into a category even more fundamental than a right to vote. Nothing and nobody should interfere with a mother feeding her child, for any reason, anywhere she and the baby are otherwise legally entitled to be.

Contrast that with the topfree movement. Proponents world-wide take issue with requirements that women's breasts always be covered. The argument goes like this: Anyplace a man can go shirtless, women can, too, and if some locale requires that a woman be covered, then so must men. This has nothing to do with breastfeeding -- nothing, that is, except exposed breasts. Constraints are imposed on a general basis; e.g., "no shirt, no service". But to deny women the ability to take off their shirts, if the situation allows men to, is making a distinction based solely or primarily on gender, which is never OK. (This topic needs a separate blog post. [July 2011 note: This one is still on MySpace.])

Whatever its merits, this is a freedom, not a right. There is no civil guarantee that either men or women have any legal right to remove their clothing. Nor is there any license to go topfree, whether male or female; hence neither is it a privilege.

To sum up, I will list a few of these in a simple table, and add to it as I think of others or as suggested by my readers. These are not in any order.

Human rights

Citizenship rights




Universal voting

Domestic travel


Emergency health care

Free speech

Live anywhere that you can afford to.

Professional license (nurse, engineer, etc.)

Compulsory education of children

Place and type of worship

Topfree women if men allowed to.

Public library usage

Fire and police protection

Other specific rights listed in the U.S. Constitution or its Amendments

Attend schools of choice.

Preferred banking rates on loans and other products

In making comments, I prefer to limit discussion to the distinctions at hand, not go into the relative merits of the examples given. Say what you want, though, as I'll incorporate any ideas into a future blog post. Thank you for reading this, and thanks in advance for sharing your ideas!

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