From the asylum of absolute lunacy that characterizes American politics today, we have been hearing that we can no longer afford “entitlements” that the lazy jobless people feed on. The attitude is that such “entitlements” – a word that sounds like something less than “rights” – are merely coerced charity. However, “entitlements” that maintain people’s basic needs are not public charity, and private charity cannot replace public provisions for basic needs. Private charity does not only fail to solve the fundamental problem of people’s deprivation, it also fails conceptually. Private charity is what is called in ethics an “imperfect duty,” which means that you should do it, but you don’t always have to do it. That citizens provide for one another and ensure that each have their basic needs met is a “perfect duty”, one that is always and continuously performed, for which we must establish social institutions to act in our stead.
Recall that freedom is the fundamental right from which all other rights flow. For us to be able to claim that any individual is free, they must in fact be able to pursue, with minimal social interference, what they themselves conceives of as what is good, insofar as this does not interfere with others’ ability to do the same. Furthermore, this right must be real and effective, and not merely formal. That is to say, an individual should be able to actually pursue their good, not merely in the abstract. People cannot pursue their conception of the good without having their basic needs – for food, water, shelter, medicine, and social access – met.
People in a free society have duties as a flip side of having rights. My right to something is defined as your duty to allow me to that thing. We must keep that in mind when we are told that certain public requirements are a bar to liberty. While we here at Philosophyhelmet deny the legitimacy of our undemocratic government, in principle a free people will still have duties to one another as citizens. This includes the duty to provide for one another’s basic needs, so that each citizen may effectively exercise their freedom.