Let’s Talk About Entitlement – Rights, Privileges and Social Expectations

By understanding claims of rights and privileges in terms of entitlement, we can cut through the propaganda and get to the roots of the issue.

It has been claimed many times in the past that various rights and privileges were god given or self evident. But in every case, those beliefs were argued and fought for. It is clear, then, that our understanding of what we are entitled to shifts over time. What we perceive as our rights are open to contention, whether we see them as self evident or not. Rights and privileges are inherently loaded terms.

Human rights are subtly different from ordinary rights in the sense that they are supposed to apply to everyone. However, even human rights do not evenly affect everyone. This is neither inherently good nor bad, since we all find ourselves in need of different things at different times. However, it is perfectly possible to claim a human right and then exploit it for your own benefit, to the detriment of others. 

Those who claim to be philosophers and yet act outraged when someone’s ‘rights’ are up for debate are doing their profession a disservice. They are operating on the basis that right and wrong can be decided without discussion. They believe rights can be imposed by diktat from above, and everyone else is expected to fall in line without argument. We are forced to presume they have access to a higher being, perhaps a god – or perhaps themselves. 

If we look at arguments over rights and privileges neutrally, in the form of entitlements, it may help us get to the roots of the issue. Just because someone calls something a right, doesn’t mean it is true or just. If we recognise that we go about our daily business expecting things to be a certain way without question – and this is neither inherently good nor bad – we can more objectively evaluate what individuals should be able to expect within society.

When someone is called ‘privileged’ they will often defend themselves with reference to the hardships they’ve faced in life. Nobody can deny, however, that we all have a sense of entitlement. We all expect to be treated in a certain way by other people in society. This is not necessarily how we actually are treated, but our own internal sense of what is and what should be.

‘Entitled’ is thrown at people as an insult, but it isn’t inherently a bad thing. From the point of view of someone trying to coerce you into doing something, or trying to take away your rights, you will look ‘entitled’. You feel entitled to not to what you are being asked – you feel entitled to keep your rights. The question then is not ‘should we feel entitled?’ but rather, ‘what should we feel entitled to?’.

By framing it this way we can ask people to directly confront what they have merely assumed their whole lives. What have you had to put up with that you shouldn’t have to? What have you expected from others, and what have you had to give in return?

The entitlements we experience in our day to day lives are our baseline. We’re not seriously challenged or asked to defend them, because when someone does challenge us, they can be shrugged off. They are what they are, and someone would have to use persuasion and possibly force to take away what you are currently entitled to. 

It’s perfectly understandable, then, that people who are not interested in right and wrong, who seek purely to hang on to what they have, would seek to use the law to prevent their entitlements from being discussed and debated. If debate finds your entitlements unnecessary or excessive, society may then proceed to a use of force to remove them. However, if we take away the power of debate, all we are left with is the latter. If we do not respect the power of debate, we must fall back on the use of force. Sometimes that force is necessary to secure something we believe we are entitled to – but even then we have to be able to persuade enough people, via debate, to apply that force. 

A society which uses force and force alone to determine what people are entitled to is a violent and brutal turmoil: a fascist state or a chaotic wasteland.

By discussing rights and privileges in terms of entitlements, we can cut through the propaganda and false righteousness of the authoritarians and libertarians alike, and stop pretending that human society is organised by a fixed and unchanging set of social rules handed down to us through the revelations of a god or prophet.

Dan Fisher is the Editor-in-Chief for Uncommon Ground Media.

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