With the social, economic and pandemic-related turmoil in this country, we all are learning about our rights. Experts on individual rights have sprouted like a bloom of constitutional law professors. “The government can’t tell me what to do; I know my rights.”
Some do know, but more are simply clueless. True, the Bill of Rights in the federal Constitution and Montana’s Declaration of Rights set forth the basic civil rights that we Americans and Montanans are guaranteed. But, none of those rights is absolute — save, in my view, the right of inviolable human dignity under Montana’s Constitution. Each right is subject to statutory exceptions and limitations or to interpretational court decisions commencing from the founding of our nation and state.
And like it or not, constitutionally, in most instances the government can tell you what to do. It’s called the rule of law.
That said, with all this rhetoric about one’s rights, there is little mention of one’s responsibilities. Responsible citizenship may be required by law and is implicit in many court decisions. Notably, in Montana responsible citizenship is a constitutional imperative.
Article II, Section 3 of Montana’s Declaration of Rights decrees that all persons are born free and have certain inalienable rights, including the right to a clean and healthful environment; to pursuing life’s basic necessities; to enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; to acquiring, possessing and protecting property; and to seeking safety, health and happiness in all lawful ways.
There’s a “but” however — the constitutional imperative. The last sentence of Section 3 states: “In enjoying these rights, all persons recognize corresponding responsibilities.”
So, while one is guaranteed the inalienable rights in Section 3, the Constitution is clear that in enjoying these rights, one must do so in a responsible manner.
Responsible citizenship can mean a lot of different things. It might mean I can possess and enjoy hens on my residential property, but not roosters; it might mean I can own a weapon, but can’t shoot my neighbor’s cat; it might mean I can go to the grocery store to buy food and beer, but I must wear a face-mask in the store during a pandemic.
Pretty common sense stuff which values and balances every person’s rights? Yes, except, of course, to the experts who know their rights — but nothing about their corresponding duty of responsible citizenship.
Importantly, though, this duty of responsible citizenship is more than constitutionally required common sense. Rather, this imperative encompasses a duty not only to my neighbor and the other folks buying groceries, but a global duty in all things to all people in all times. Why?
The reason is that we human beings are the only species that has ever had the power to end life on this planet. And, we are recklessly engaging in precisely that. We (and I use this pronoun to include other countries) maintain enough nuclear weapons to destroy every living thing on earth; we are heating the planet to the point that it may be uninhabitable for future generations; we are engineering artificial intelligence and genes without any protocols to prevent those sciences from running amok; we are causing a massive sixth extinction of other species; and we are ravaging the land and water environments that are necessary for our very existence.
This is not simply a parade of horribles. Each of these is a scientifically substantiated existential risk to our species’ survival; that is, to humanity’s continuation.
Certainly, we owe our constitutional duty of responsible citizenship to each other, now. But morally we also owe this duty to future generations in order to preserve humanity’s potential -- the right of those yet to be born to enjoy not only the rights we have, but also the right to learn, heal, grow, build, govern, explore, discover and live in ways that we cannot even imagine. It is with their rights, go our responsibilities.
James C. Nelson is a retired Montana Supreme Court justice.
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