In a recent interview the rock star Dion, whose songs included "The Wanderer" and "Runaround Sue" described the difference between license and responsibility. He noted that license gives us permission to do something whether or not it is good for us whereas responsibility gives us the freedom to do as we ought. It was only after becoming a Christian that he began to understand the distinction between the two. He then observed that as young children we don’t have the freedom to choose. Decisions are made for us. It is only as we begin to take responsibility that we obtain this freedom.
Today we live in a world that focuses on rights rather than responsibility. Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, in his 1978 Harvard graduation address, remarked that “The West ended up by truly enforcing human rights, sometimes even excessively, but man's sense of responsibility to God and society grew dimmer and dimmer.” During the intervening years, the situation has not improved. People are often forcefully talking about their rights. But when was the last time you heard anyone speak as forcefully about their responsibilities? Our government gives us many rights. Unfortunately they are more closely related to license than to responsibility. We can think of many examples. For instance, we have the right to obtain a divorce, but it doesn't mean that we ought to do so. We have the right to have an abortion, but it also doesn't mean that we should. We have the right to go out and get drunk, but it's certainly not the best thing to do. Rights are tied to license. In most cases they are related to what we legally can do. But rights can become terrible task masters when we focus too much upon them. They can gain control over us. By focusing on them we easily become their slaves.
On the other hand, responsibility, because it deals with what we ought to do, is more connected to morality. Responsibility gives us the freedom to choose to do what is right. Unlike rights, it is not directly related to what we legally can or cannot do. Responsibility allows us to choose to do what is proper and what we should. In both Solzhenitsyn’s and Dion’s eyes, rights and responsibility are the antithesis or each other. It is difficult to maintain both at the same time. Rights focus on “me” whereas responsibility focuses on “others”. Rights focus on what I can legally do whether I should or not. Responsibility focuses on what I ought to do in given situations. Responsibility brings freedom because it involves the commitment of the will. Perhaps the reason we hear so little about responsibility these days is because of its tie to morality. The society in which we live is consumed with being free to do what they want, not what they ought. Our compulsive obsession with rights has enslaved us to the point that we are no longer free. We have bought into the mantras of women’s rights, minority rights, gay rights, freedom of choice rights, and whatever other rights we can think of. This obsession has led to the victim society in which we live. Instead of taking responsibility, it is much easier to blame someone else.
Solzhenitsyn and Dion imply that until we put more emphasis on responsibility than rights we will never solve the problems which face society today. Until we do, we will never be truly free. But we can’t expect society to change its focus unless we do so first. Ask yourself, “Do I focus more on my rights or my responsibilities?” The answer will tell you a lot.