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Beyond rights to duties: Our duty of care

We have a duty to ourselves and we also have a duty to others


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The focus on rights and responsibilities has come into focus globally over issues like those who take a position on vaccination, democracy or abortion.

The right to my body has become a sacred cry and the state should not intervene in my personal rights. We have faced over two years of challenge from Covid and its mutations, which continue to affect societies.

The fact remains, we can take all necessary steps to protect ourselves and yet be vulnerable to infection from those who have been vaccinated and otherwise. With more and more people taking the vaccines, there is a general sense of safety in numbers shared among those who have taken two doses and the booster shots.

This has driven the wedge deeper in relation to the unvaccinated. New reports indicate that there are more unvaccinated people being infected presently and admitted to hospital. This causes a reaction from amongst the hospital staff, all of whom have undergone double vaccination. In addition, intensive care facilities are taken up by these cases, leading to the inability of hospitals to respond to other serious cases and operations.

There is a personal dimension to this: if we were unvaccinated and caused an infection to our dear ones leading to a loss of life, what a tragedy this would represent, and how would we manage such events and adversity?

In a similar vein, the proponents of abortion laws speak in terms of the right to their bodies. It is acceptable that there are circumstances when abortion should be considered and there are norms in countries to regulate this.

However, are rights and responsibilities the only perspective from which such positions should be viewed?

An Eastern view would be to look at such issues from the perspective of duties and responsibilities. Such a perspective will encompass rights, and when balanced against duties, will afford a more balanced response. We have a duty to ourselves and we also have a duty to others. Generally speaking, when we fail in exercising our duty to the other, then this gives rise in law to the tort of negligence.

We live today in a highly interdependent world. We must consider our duty to the other, and we have to act with this perspective in mind. I can empathise with the anti-vaxxers and their positions, but from the perspective of my duty to the other, I take a different position. The other is important and just as the virus makes no distinction between people, so I too have to transcend my sense of rights and be guided by a higher sense of duty.

I have a mother who is over 90 and a daughter who is immunocompromised. I live with these realities daily. I owe a deep duty of care to both of them. It is no more a sense of my rights. I subjugate this and accept that my duty overrides and encompasses my personal sense of rights. I dread to think if I was the cause for either of them catching Covid or any of its mutations. This would be something that would hurt me deeply at the level of my conscience.

There are always risks and adversities that befall all of us. We are in a better position to handle these if we are not the cause of such adversity or if we have taken all the necessary precautions at all times.

The questions we face are no more personal or individual. It is also about the collective. We hear good and bad news, yet we have each one of us to take a personal decision that serves the best interest of the collective and us personally. A sense of duty could provide a larger, deeper and more inclusive perspective and response.

It is equally true that we also owe a duty of care to our body. If we are able to reflect on this and view issues like abortion, then we are in position to make the right and most helpful decision. For ultimately, ‘life’ is the highest value that we all share. Many may not agree with me, but this is a perspective worthy of deep reflection.

I am reminded of an expert on the environment who gave an outstanding presentation on the global environmental challenges that humanity faces. With facts, figures and data, a compelling case was presented. Later, during tea, the expert was seen smoking away. Isn’t there a deep relationship between our internal and external environment!

This is what is meant by congruency, more popularly referred to as walking the talk. The other is important and we are able to have a more balanced and helpful view when we reflect on the other and our deep sense of duty of care to ourselves, our neighbours and the environment.

A duty is more than a transactional relationship. It is not restricted in an organisation by your letter of appointment and responsibilities. A sense of duty motivates one to share, to take responsibility and to contribute.

It is in keeping with the late John F Kennedy’s refrain: “Ask not what your country can give you but what you can give to your country.”

Our motivation ultimately is what makes the difference. When the motivation is to keep power, then both duties and rights can become blurred.

Consider the dilemma of Boris Johnson. His close associates can only waffle and not be clear about the compromises he has made, for which he needs to be held accountable. The same for Trump, with his focus only on himself.

Closer to home and we have Najib Razak and all the political frogs who ‘jumped’ to other parties. They exhibited their rights at great expense of those who elected them to office. 

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

AGENDA RAKYAT - Lima perkara utama
  1. Tegakkan maruah serta kualiti kehidupan rakyat
  2. Galakkan pembangunan saksama, lestari serta tangani krisis alam sekitar
  3. Raikan kerencaman dan keterangkuman
  4. Selamatkan demokrasi dan angkatkan keluhuran undang-undang
  5. Lawan rasuah dan kronisme
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K Haridas, an Aliran executive committee member, is the current honorary secretary of the Business Ethics Institute of Malaysia, chairperson of the Association For The Promotion Of Higher Education In Malaysia and chairperson of the Malaysian chapter of Initiatives of Change International.
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