Can we have human rights without human responsibilities?
A Lecture for the China Society, 6 January 2022
We live in a troubled world. We face many grave global challenges: COVID-19, climate change, geopolitical turbulence, and growing poverty in some regions. These challenges are complex. They have many root causes. But I am going to argue in my lecture today that one key root cause is that we have lost the balance between rights and responsibilities in human affairs.
Many parts of the world have lost this balance. However, it is the loss of balance in the West that matters the most because the West represents still the strongest and most dominant civilisation in global affairs. We, the rest of humanity, the remaining 88 percent of the world’s population, should thank the West for providing many of the key drivers that explain the extraordinary progress that humanity has made in the past few decades. Hence, if the civilisation that has been the main driver of human history loses its way, all of us in the rest of humanity will be affected.
As a student of Western philosophy, I can say with great confidence that Western philosophers have traditionally given equal emphasis to rights and responsibilities in human affairs. But, contemporary Western thinkers have clearly lost the way and now give greater emphasis to rights while ignoring responsibilities. This tendency to ignore the importance of responsibilities has had dire consequences for the West and the world. My goal today therefore is to help the West by explaining why it is in the interest of Western societies to revert back to the natural balance of rights and responsibilities that Western philosophers have advocated for centuries, if not millennia.
In more recent times, the West has failed to pay sufficient attention to moral responsibilities in many areas, as this talk will illustrate with examples. For example, it has failed to create a level playing field between the rich and poor, especially in the US. It has failed to recognise its responsibility to protect our fragile and endangered planet.
Let me begin my explanations by first telling a story, which captures well this tendency in the West to focus on rights and ignore or diminish responsibilities. This story happened in December 10, 1998 when the UN General Assembly met to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Let me emphasise here that the UDHR is a very important document. Though both the letter and spirit of this document (which we should all read carefully), we eradicated many practices which had deprived many, if not most, human beings of basic human rights; practices like slavery, feudalism, serfdom, unequal treatment of women, child labour and so on. In short, the adoption of the UDHR was a great leap forward in human history.
However, the UDHR was clearly not a perfect document. It emphasised rights and paid less attention to responsibilities. In view of this, a group of leading statesmen of the world, led by the legendary former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt, suggested the adoption of a "Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities" to accompany the UDHR. Indeed, Mr Schmidt personally drafted such a declaration, which was then endorsed by several other global statesmen, including Mr Malcolm Fraser, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Mr Pierre Trudeau and Mr Mikhail Gorbachev.
Mr Schmidt's declaration was drafted in 1997. The perfect opportunity to have launched this Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities was when the UN celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Since the West believes in the virtues of free speech and open debates, I thought that Western governments and non-governmental organisations would support a free and open discussion of Mr Schmidt's initiative. Instead, they mounted a strong campaign to suppress all discussion of the document. I know that all this happened. I was personally present and saw all this with my own eyes.
When the archives of the State Department declassifies all the memos that explain this US and Western policy to suppress the discussion of Schmidt’s draft, ‘Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities’, I hope we will find out why a document on human responsibilities, written by a leading Western Statesman, was suppressed by Western governments. However, this suppression was also not surprising as it reflected the zeitgeist of the 1990s, a zeitgeist best captured in Francis Fukuyama’s essay “The End of History”.
As a result of this zeitgeist, Western minds were captured by a rather simplistic view that the West had won the Cold War because it supported human rights while the Soviet Union suppressed human rights. Of course, this statement is perfectly true. But it was equally important that Western societies were more just societies where the working classes and middle classes also progressed in addition to the upper classes. There was a level playing field among all classes. The rich could progress. The poor could progress, though in the US, blacks, Native Americans, women and other minorities groups often had to wage difficult struggles for the right to have these rights.
And then something went drastically wrong, especially in the US. The poor and the lower middle classes – or the bottom fifty percent of American society – saw their incomes stagnate for almost 30 to 40 years. In chapter 7 of my book, entitled ‘The Assumption of Virtue’, I provide an enormous amount of data, which documents how this happened. It also tries to explain why it happened.
The story is very complex. I cannot do it justice in this short lecture. I hope you will read chapter 7 carefully to understand the complex story. Today, I will provide a somewhat simplified version.
The reason why the US deviated from its strategic responsibility to create a level playing field for the rich and poor is that it deviated from the traditional Western philosophical emphasis on both freedom and equality. I am sure you have all heard of this famous French phrase: ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité. Indeed, the great Genevian philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau said in his famous work, The Social Contract, that “If one inquires into precisely what the greatest good of all consists in, which ought to be the end of every system of legislation, one will find that it comes down to these two principal objects, freedom and equality. Freedom, because any individual dependence is that much force taken away from the State; equality, because freedom cannot subsist without it.” The British philosopher Harold Laski, whom Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Keng Swee had met and learned from, had also said that “there is no effective freedom in a society if there are wide differences between citizens in their access to the good things of life”.
The greatest American philosopher of recent times was John Rawls. I met him once in the early 1990s. I also wrote my Masters thesis on his most famous work, ‘A Theory of Justice’, the most influential American work on social and political philosophy of recent times. Significantly, he says that to create a just society, we must base it on two principles of justice. The first emphasises freedom or liberty. It says “Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all”. The second emphasises equality. It says “Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are… to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged…”
Rawls, however, was a very prescient man. He went beyond emphasising the importance of both freedom and equality. He also said, “The liberties protected by the principle of participation lose much of their value whenever those who have greater private means are permitted to use their advantages to control the course of public debate.” Almost fifty years ago, he warned that if those with “greater private means” are allowed to control the course of public debate, American democracy would be subverted.
Rawls was very prescient because he foresaw the creation of a plutocracy in the US. A plutocracy is, of course, the opposite of a democracy. A democracy is a government of the people, by the people and for the people. A plutocracy is a government of the 1%, by the 1% and for the 1%. I want to emphasize that I am not the only one saying that the US has become a plutocracy. Leading global figures like the late Paul Volcker, the former head of the Fed, the Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz and Martin Wolf of the Financial Times have described the US as a plutocracy.
Another leading Financial Times journalist, Edward Luce, who reports on the US, has also reported on the phenomenon. He has said: “On pure arithmetic, the average American’s chances of entering a top university are tiny if they are born into the wrong home. Studies show that an eighth grade (14-year-old) child from a lower income bracket who achieves maths results in the top quarter is less likely to graduate than a kid in the upper income bracket scored in the bottom quarter. This is the reverse of how meritocracy should work. Children from the wealthiest 1 per cent take more Ivy League places than the bottom 60 per cent combined.”
Since the bottom fifty percent have not seen any improvement in their standard of living and see little hope that they will improve, it’s not surprising that they are unhappy. This explains the election of Donald Trump in 2016, the near re-election of Donald Trump in 2020 and the possible re-election of Donald Trump in 2024. I can see no worse outcome for our world than the re-election of Donald Trump in 2024. And this dangerous outcome is made possible only because American society has emphasised rights and ignored responsibilities, especially the responsibility to create a more just and equal society for the bottom fifty percent. This would also go against the wise advice of America’s own great presidents in its history. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had named “freedom from want” as one of his “Four Freedoms”, outlined the following as part of his vision for a “Second Bill of Rights”: “We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.”
Since my lecture is primarily about the West, let me concede here that the other Western societies, including European societies, have avoided the danger of becoming plutocracies by adhering to more traditional Democratic Socialist principles which emphasize both rights and responsibilities, especially to the bottom fifty percent. However, while many European societies are protecting the current generation of those in the bottom fifty percent, they are doing so at the cost of not protecting future generations of the bottom fifty percent. Many of the generous social security programmes which protect the current generation of the bottom fifty percent may not have sufficient funding to protect future generations. As former German Chancellor Angela Merkel once famously pointed out, “If Europe today accounts for just over 7 per cent of the world’s population, produces around 25 per cent of global GDP and has to finance 50 per cent of global social spending, then it’s obvious that it will have to work very hard to maintain its prosperity and way of life… All of us have to stop spending more than we earn every year.” In short, Angela Merkel was warning of the danger of imposing financial burdens on future generations. This would be irresponsible.
The philosopher Edmund Burke has also famously written on our obligations to future generations, saying that society is “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” Therefore, if present generations, as “temporary possessors and life-renters in it, unmindful of what they have received from their ancestors, or of what is due to their posterity, should act as if they were the entire masters; that they should not think it amongst their rights to cut off the entail, or commit waste on the inheritance, by destroying at their pleasure the whole original fabric of their society; hazarding to leave to those who come after them, a ruin instead of an habitation”
This failure to protect future generations is also visible in the failure of the West to protect and prepare our planet for future generations. This statement may sound strange to many of you who have read the Western media and Western leaders’ statements on climate change. They argue that climate change is happening because of the new flows of greenhouse gas emissions from newly emerging economic powers like China and India. For example, the Chairman of the recent COP26 meeting in Glasgow in November 2021, Mr Alok Sharma, who otherwise did a brilliant job of chairing a conference, said at the end, “We are on the way to consigning coal to history. This is an agreement we can build on. But in the case of China and India, they will have to explain to climate-vulnerable countries why they did what they did.”
This statement by Alok Sharma was clearly unfair because climate change is not just happening because of new flows of greenhouse gas emissions from China and India. It is also happening because of the stock of greenhouse gas emissions from the Western industrialised countries. My colleague, Bertrand Seah, and I have documented this for a recent article for Straits Times. This is what we said:
“The first hard truth is that climate change is not happening just because of the new "flows" of greenhouse gases from newly developing countries like China and India. Climate change is also a result of the "stock" of greenhouse gas emissions put up by the Western industrialised countries, including Canada, since the Western Industrial Revolution began two centuries ago.
BBC commentators regularly refer to China as the world's "largest emitter" of greenhouse gas emissions. This is true only if "flows" are measured. But if the "stocks" are added to the picture, the largest emitter in cumulative terms is the US. Here is the data for the "stocks" of carbon dioxide emissions: the contribution of the US is 25 per cent, the European Union 22 per cent, China 13 per cent and India 3 per cent.”
The evidence is clear. On a cumulative basis the Western industrialised countries have contributed more to the stock of greenhouse gas emissions that are causing global warming than any other societies, especially if measured on a per capita basis. A simple and basic rule of justice is that he who has contributed most to creating a problem should also contribute a proportional amount of solutions. This is plain and simple fairness. This would also be a responsible thing to do.
Yet, if any contemporary Western politicians were to argue that the more affluent Western countries should contribute more to solve global warming, he or she would be committing political suicide. Many Western politicians have acknowledged that in democracies, it can be difficult to do the right thing. Jean-Claude Juncker, a famous European politician who served as the President of the European Commission from 2014 to 2019, once said: “We all know what to do, we just don't know how to get re-elected after we've done it.”
This creates an obvious paradox about democratic forms of government. On the one hand, they are perceived to be the most moral form of government since the people get to choose their leaders. On the other hand, they are also an immoral form of government since the people who vote are only interested in their short-term selfish interests, not the needs of future generations or even poorer societies who have suffered from their actions, for example in climate change. In short, democracies produce national pools of selfishness, which are structurally biased against the global responsibilities we have as citizens of a small planet in peril.
To be fair and balanced what I have said, let me add here that civil society and NGOs in advanced countries can do a lot of good. Hence, even though private corporations in advanced countries should only pay attention to short-term profits, many, if not most, private corporations are committed to fighting climate change, partly as a result from education or pressure from NGOs. These moral contributions of civil society may explain why, during the first year of the Trump Administration, when President Trump walked away from all the obligations the US had undertook in the Paris Climate Accords of 2015, the greenhouse gas emissions from the US kept going down, partly because of actions taken by local and state governments in the US. California, for example, undertook significant commitments to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions through policies aimed at clean energy and electric vehicles. As a result, California met its 2020 emissions reduction targets early in 2016, and has continued reducing its emissions since. Efforts of states such as California have contributed to the US reducing its overall emissions. This was clearly a responsible contribution by the American people.
While these stores of bottom-up initiatives from NGO’s and civil society provide us hope that the right actions will be taken because of public pressures, the record also shows that the interests of the society at large will be sacrificed when money takes control of the political system. As I said earlier, John Rawls was very prescient when he warned of the danger of people using their private means to control public debate.
This is exactly what happened when the Supreme Court adopted the Citizens United decision in 2010. This decision allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited sums on ads and other political tools to defeat individual candidates. Martin Wolf of the Financial Times says that “the Supreme Court’s perverse 2010 Citizens United decision held that companies are persons and money is speech. This has proved a big step on the journey of the US towards becoming a plutocracy.
Just in case some of you are puzzled and don’t understand what are the specific dangers of becoming a plutocracy, let me give you three concrete examples of decisions that were made to support narrow private interests at the expense of the larger public interest. All these actions would be illegal in Singapore. But they were legal in the US.
The first example was the successful lobbying by the US pharmaceutical companies to pass legislation that prevented the US Veterans Organization to negotiate lower prices when they purchase drugs from US pharmaceutical companies. In Singapore, it would be illegal if you asked SGH and NUH not to negotiate lower prices for their patients. But it’s legal in the US.
The second example was the successful lobbying by the hedge fund companies to say that their extraordinary incomes made by venture capital investors, private equity partners and hedge fund managers were deemed to be “carried interest”, and therefore subject to the lower capital gains taxes (20%) rather than the higher income taxes (37%). Any such lobbying would also be illegal in Singapore.
The third example is even more amazing. Many corporations successfully lobbied against giving additional funding for the Internal Revenue Services (IRS). The IRS collects taxes for the US government and public. By depriving them of additional staff, the corporations essentially crippled their ability to collect taxes. Here you can see clearly the right of private individuals and corporates trumped the larger social responsibility to collect enough revenue to serve the public interest.
The main reason why I tell you these stories is that when you emphasize “rights” (including the “rights” of private corporations), the interests of the larger public are subverted if you don’t also talk of “responsibilities”. Let me as an aside also mention that history, especially 20th century history, explains this emphasis on rights. In the 20thcentury, the Western societies saw as their two main political opponents the fascism of Hitler and the Marxism-Leninism of Stalin. To differentiate themselves from Hitler and Stalin, the West emphasized the importance of rights.
By continuing to emphasise the importance of “rights”, the West is fighting 20st century battles in the 21st century. As a result, they have their guns pointed in the wrong direction. Next month, in February 2022, we will mark the 80th anniversary of the fall of Singapore to Japanese forces in 1942. The British built their guns in the South to ward off a naval invasion. Instead, the Japanese troops came on bicycles from the North and took over Singapore.
In the 21st century, the biggest danger to Western democracy is not the danger from dictators like Hitler or Stalin. Instead, it’s the danger from plutocracies at home! The threat to Western democracies doesn’t come from external sources. It comes from internal challenges. These internal challenges have arisen – and this is my main thesis in this lecture – because Western societies don’t give enough emphasis to responsibilities. I hope that I have given you enough examples to prove this point.
Before closing, I want to make another point which explains this lack of attention to responsibilities. Ideas don’t just appear out of thin air. They reflect our material circumstances. A former American Ambassador, Chas Freeman, has provided a good argument for explaining why Americans emphasise rights and freedoms while Chinese focus on responsibilities. This is what he says: “China is slightly larger than the United States…But there are 1.4 billion Chinese, with only one-third the arable land and one-fourth the water we Americans have. If we had the same ratio of population to agricultural resources that the Chinese do, there would be almost 4 billion Americans— I suspect that, if there were that many people crammed into the United States, Americans would have a much lower tolerance for social disorder.”
I have no doubt that if there were 4 billion Americans living in the US rather than 330 million Americans, they would arrive at a different balance between rights and responsibilities. And this brings me to my final point. The one big transformation that we have made in the human condition is that we now know that the 7.8 billion people no longer live in a vast planet with unlimited space and unlimited resources. Instead, all of us live on a small crowded planet which is facing a serious danger of destroying the fragile atmosphere that is making human habitation possible.
In the face of these new material circumstances, what would be the responsible thing to do? The answer clearly is that we should not assert our rights to continue improving our lives and ignore the consequences for the fragile planet. Instead, our primary responsibility is to take care of our planet first and, if necessary, sacrifice our personal rights. John F. Kennedy famously said in 1961, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” Today, we need global leaders to say, “Ask not what your planet can do for you – ask what you can do for your planet.”
Surely, this is plain common sense. Unfortunately, one lesson I have learned in life is that common sense is actually very uncommon, This is why we need to engineer a major philosophical revolution in human minds and assert one simple but important principle: each time you speak of your human rights, you must always and without exception, mention your human responsibilities in the same breadth. That simple rule could save humanity.
 Kishore Mahbubani, “Has China Won?”, PublicAffairs 2020, p.190.
 Gina Chon, “Rising Drug Prices Put Big Pharma’s Lobbying to the Test”, New York Times, 1 September 2016,
 Morris Pearl, “It's time for Congress to close the carried interest loophole”, The Hill, 10 December 2021, https://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/politics/585320-its-time-for-congress-to-close-the-carried-interest-loophole
 Paul Kiel and Jesse Eisinger, “How The IRS Was Gutted”, ProPublica, 11 December 2018, https://www.propublica.org/article/how-the-irs-was-gutted
 Has China Won?, p.164.