8 years, 3 months ago

Four principles – 2: There are no rights

Link: http://weblog.tetradian.com/2013/02/04/four-principles-2-no-rights/

What rights do we need to design for in enterprise-architecture? At the really big-picture scale?

This is the third in a series of posts on principles for a sane society:

A bit of background first. I’m working on a book and conference-presentation about the role of the ‘business-anarchist’. Part of work involves exploring some ideas and challenges at the Really Big Picture Enterprise-Architecture (RBPEA) scope – enterprise-architecture at the scale of an entire society, an entire nation, an entire world – and then see where it takes us as we bring it back down again to the everyday.

As I described in the first post in this series, I’ve been looking for fundamental principles upon which long-term viability can depend, under conditions of often highly-variable variety-weather – the changes in change itself. To me, after several decades of study, there seem to be just four of these: there are no rulesthere are no rightsmoney doesn’t matter, and adaptability is everything.

So here’s a bit more detail about the second of those principles for a sane society: the understanding that the beautiful ideal of ‘rights’ has fatal flaws in real-world practice, and that, to make it work, we need to get back to the real responsibilities that underpin those purported ‘rights’. Once we accept the reality of this, it has huge implications for our enterprise-architectures…

Principle #2: There are no rights – only responsibilities

I’ve written quite a lot already on these themes in this blog, but it’s important to bring it out again in this context, because of the way it links to all of the other core-principles.

This principle follows directly from Principle #1, in that a purported ‘right’ is, in essence, a rule that we attempt to impose upon others, usually for our own benefit. The sentiment behind ‘rights’ is usually worthwhile, but there are two fundamental flaws:

  • a ‘right’ is usually a declaration of a desired outcome, but without any indication as to how the heck that outcome could be achieved
  • a ‘right’ is frequently used as an assertion of absence of responsibility: “I have rights, you have responsibilities”

In many cases, the requirement for a ‘right’ occurs only in defence against someone else’s purported ‘right’: for example, much of the original ‘Women’s Rights’ discourse started out that way. Within a viable society, we definitely need some means to defend ourselves against the all-too-popular delusion that ‘might is right’….

Yet some so-called ‘rights’ exist more for offence than defence, which is definitely not a good idea. One classic example is the purported ‘right to bear arms’ in the amended US Constitution, often cited as a defence against the powers of government, but whose real purpose was to preserve and defend slavery – the purported ‘rights’ of slave-owners over the lives of others as ‘their’ slaves.

[Update: as you’ll see from the first of the comments below, the article at the link above about ‘real purpose was to defend slavery’ is only one particular view of that aspect of the fine-detail of US history; there are indeed other views. Please don’t get distracted about that: there are many, many other examples, such as the ‘right’ of ‘jus primae noctis‘ supposedly claimed by feudal seigneurs over their vassals’ lives. The point here is that ‘rights’ ‘over’ others exist, in essence, to condone or protect offence rather than defence – and are disturbingly common, even in the present day.]

In that case, and in many others, the ‘right’ is asymmetric, assigned only to certain group. Much of the current ‘Women’s Rights’ discourse likewise falls into this category. Every such example represents institutionalised abuse, in the literal sense of the use of a culture’s institutions to offload some form of exclusive-responsibility onto the Other without their engagement and consent.

Purported ‘rights’ are also frequently used to claim inherent priority over others. If a ‘right’ is supposedly ‘inalienable and absolute’, then by definition it has priority over mere human-made laws: hence an assertion of ‘my rights’ can be used as a kind of magic trump-card to override the needs of everyone else. Absolutism of ‘rights’, however, means that there is no way to resolve a conflict of symmetric purported-’rights’: in practice, often the only way out is a reversion to ‘might is right’…

Most seriously, ‘rights’ tend automatically to create a paediarchy – ‘rule by, for and on behalf of the childish’. (I’ll write a separate post on this somewhen in the next week or so.) Under a paediarchy, selfishness, self-centredness and irresponsibility are actively rewarded, whilst those who do take responsibility are often blamed or punished. Most societies can tolerate small amounts of paediarchy, especially if it’s relatively transient in individuals – as we’d usually hope it would be with most toddler-age children. However, a ‘rights’-based social model both condones and incites assertions of absence of responsibility – feeding and rewarding a spiralling tendency towards a societal-scale paediarchy such as a slave-culture. No society can survive indefinitely the inherent tensions in that kind of downward-spiral.

The only viable way out of that mess is to refocus on responsibilities, not ‘rights’. A real awareness of this point might explain what, to some current feminists, is an otherwise-inexplicable complaint in the ‘Declaration of Sentiments‘ from the iconoclastic Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention in 1848:

He has made her morally, an irresponsible being, as she can commit many crimes with impunity, provided they be done in the presence of her husband.

(By the way, for those of us genuinely committed to gender-equality, it can be a sobering and disappointing experience to do a simple gender-inversion on each of the assertions in the ‘Declaration of Sentiments’, and recognise from that thought-experiment just how much we’ve allowed the pendulum of seductively-selfish sexism to swing too far the other way… not a good idea…)

What the activists at the Seneca Falls Convention realised – and so many activists have since ‘conveniently’ forgotten – is that the absence of acknowledged responsibility must necessarily lead to an enforced infantilisation of those who are ‘protected’ from responsibility: ultimately, not a fun experience for anyone… And a culture that demands that only some self-selected group have responsibility-free ‘rights’, whilst the excluded Others are assigned the responsibilities to create those ‘freedoms’ for everyone except themselves, is a paediarchy that puts everyone in peril: again, not a good idea.

In essence, Principle #2 asserts that every purported ‘right’ can and should be reframed in terms of interlocking mutual responsibilities. Shifting the emphasis from ‘rights’ to responsibilities makes the desired-outcome of each ‘right’ much more achievable in real-world practice:

  • a focus on the interlocking and interdependence of responsibilities identifies how the desired-outcome can be achieved
  • a focus on the mutuality of responsibilities provides active protection against paediarchy and other ‘rights’-based dysfunctions
  • any asymmetries in responsibilities can be highlighted, and where necessary can then also be described in defensible yet challengeable form – for example, the lesser ‘response-abilities’ of children relative to adults

I know I’m not going to be popular for saying this, but there is no escaping the fact that basing a nation’s culture on purported ‘rights’ is just about the most dangerous delusion that any society could impose upon itself – because in the longer term its only possible outcome is rampant paediarchy, or worse. The citizens of certain countries will no doubt have huge difficulty with this one, but – to be blunt – a Bill Of Rights or suchlike is not something to celebrate, but best understood as a societal-scale suicide-note. Once again, not a good idea… You Have Been Warned?

Again, and again, we need to face this fact: ‘rights’ look great in theory, but just do not work in practice – especially over the longer term. The only way that does work is to rebuild around responsibilities: to create active incentives for responsibility – not disincentives.

And as with the pseudo-certainties of ‘rules’, and the need to rethink in terms of guidelines to work with Reality Department’s real uncertainties, the same recursion applies at every level, from nations to societies and sub-cultures to organisations and organisational sub-units and all the way down, even to the way the web-services and the like interact with each other. Which is where this brings us back down out of the abstract again, and on to the practical concerns of everyday enterprise-architectures.

Implications for enterprise-architecture

Every purported ‘right’ is, in essence, a rule that claims to be absolute and non-negotiable – which, as per the previous post on ‘rules’, is not a viable idea in real-world practice. Worse, purported ‘rights’ often provide no means whatsoever to indicate how the outcome of that ‘right’ should be delivered; and, worse again, rarely provide – or even permit – any means to resolve the many, many, many real-world clashes between such purported ‘rights’. In other words, rather than resolving real-world concerns, ‘rights’ usually make it almost impossible to resolve them – and then complain about it, loudly.

Even the idea of ‘rights’ is rarely a good idea anywhere. This especially applies in business, because it leads so easily to bad designs and bad decisions. Seth Godin summarises this point with his usual pithy brilliance in a short post on ‘Owning vs. renting‘:

Owning vs. renting
You don’t own attention or trust or shelf space. You don’t even own tomorrow’s plans.
It’s all for rent, with a cancellation clause that can kick in at any time.
The moment you start treating the rental like a right, it disappears.

The word ‘own’ in that quote is a colloquial shorthand for ‘right to possess’ – a classic theme of paediarchy and ‘kiddies-anarchy’, particularly when we contrast it with a more adult mutual-respect and mutual-responsibility for stewardship of a shared-resource. The reality is that mutual-responsibilities work; ‘rights’ don’t.

Unfortunately, almost all existing enterprise-architectures are riddled with purported ‘rights’, at every possible scale: property-rights, decision-rights, right to punish, rights to ‘authority over others’, rights to priority-treatment, and so on , and so on, and so on. Again, almost all of these ‘rights’ purport to be absolute, inalienable, and non-negotiable – many of which assertions at present have the full support of social-custom, regulation and law. The reason why the word ’unfortunately’ applies here is that every single one of those ‘rights’ is guaranteed to cause dysfunction in the respective system, because – by definition – they neither accept nor even acknowledge the reality of real-world variance: “my right is my right“, absolute, indisputable, now, no trade-off, no question, no matter what the real-world may say about it…

Oh the joys of ‘kiddies-anarchy’: it never works…


In practice, mangled ideas about ‘rights’ are one of the main reasons why most of our enterprise-architectures are such a mess. (If you don’t yet realise they’re a mess, or the scale of the mess that they’re really in, you haven’t been looking hard enough…) And despite their current dominance in most social-discourse, the bleak joke is that on their own, ‘rights’ don’t deliver anything at all: what does deliver is the interplay of the real mutual-responsibilities that underpin every so-called ‘right’.

So to get the architectures to work, we need to get rid of every single one of those ‘rights’, and replace them with clear descriptions of mutual-responsibilities. Which is not a trivial challenge… but it’s the only way that works.

To say that this one is ‘political’ is possibly the understatement of the century… :-( In practice, though, there are several guidelines that can make this kind of work more viable and less perilous (for the enterprise-architect) than it might otherwise be:

Always focus on the desired-outcome that the ‘right’ purports to provide. In essence a ‘right’ is actually a means – a purported ‘solution’ – towards some desired ends. As with all architecture-work, we need to avoid any form of ‘solutioneering’, and instead explicitly separate out the means from the ends.

Always link this to the previous/parallel work on transitioning from rules to guidelines. In particular, focus on themes such as the dangers of pseudo-certainty, the practical reasons behind the need to ‘surface’ hidden-assumptions and arbitrary expectations, and also the need to maintain awareness of the respective variances and variety-weather in each context in scope.

Always avoid any direct challenge to ‘rights’. Remember that ‘rights without responsibilities’ is the foundation-stone for paediarchy – hence any direct challenge to purported ‘rights’ is likely to trigger the contextual equivalent of two-year-old’s temper-tantrum when ‘dispossessed’ of some tantalising toy. Within architectural assessment and system-redesign, challenges to purported-’rights’ must always be indirect, focussing on outcomes and responsibilities: much as with a two-year-old-child, we need to gently distract attention away from the feared ‘loss’, and towards what actually works, including clear explanations and reminders of what the desired-outcome actually is. (If this sounds a bit arrogant and patronising, remember that every person – including us – has an angry out-of-control two-year-old lurking somewhere within them: this applies to everyone, not just some convenient somewhere-out-there ‘Them’.)

Remember too that there’s nothing ‘new’ (or, for US folks, ‘socialist’ or suchlike) about replacing purported ‘rights’ with mutual-responsibilities: doing so delivers the same overall outcome, but in a way that is far less problematic, far less conflict-prone and far more effective for everyone involved. For example, compare a typical traffic-management model in the US – based on ‘right of way’ – versus traffic-management in the UK, which, although colloquially described as ‘right of way’, in law is actually based on ‘responsibility to give way’ and overall ‘responsibilities to all road-users’. In the US model, practical outcomes include the ‘four-way stop’, which forces frequent stop-and-start in order to re-establish who has ‘possession’ of exclusive-priority of ‘right of way’, and for which the only apparent method to resolve any conflict of exactly-symmetrical ‘rights of way’ – such as four people arriving at a cross-junction at the same moment – is a ‘might-is-right’ fight. Contrast that with the UK model, where the guidelines clarify what the responsibilities to achieve the overall-outcomes actually are, and where mutual-responsibilities impose an explicit requirement to negotiate with others an appropriate and ‘fair’ resolution to potential-conflicts, because no-one can ever claim ‘exclusive-possession’ of the ‘right of way’.

In practical terms, whenever we see any kind of purported ‘right’, at any level of the architecture, we need to apply questions such as these:

  • What is the actualdesired-outcome that the ‘right’ purports to deliver?
  • What responsibilities are needed, and by and from whom?
    • (a counterpart ‘Five Hows’ will often be useful here, to drill downward into practical details)
  • How will the outcome be achieved by these mutual-responsibilities?
  • How can, will and must the responsibilities interlock to support and verify mutuality?
  • How can and will ‘fairness’ and other such social drivers can be satisfied by such interlocks?
  • What are the variances in the context that a rigid ‘right’ would ignore? – and from that, how will the responsibilities, and mutuality of responsibilities, need to vary in different circumstances?
  • What are the interactions between the existing ‘right’ and other related ‘rights’? – and from that, how will these responsibilities support resolution of such interactions?
  • How will human variance in individual competence, skills-levels and other ‘response-abilities’ be allowed-for in the modelling of mutuality and interlock?
  • What governance-mechanisms need to be in place to detect and challenge evasion of responsibilities, attempts at ‘export’ of responsibilities to others, or any claims to ‘rights without responsibilities’?
  • How would overall governance, and any necessary sanctions from such governance, be applied in real-world practice?
  • What mutualities and governance-mechanisms need to be in place to support negotiating the real-world trade-offs between all of those responsibilities

I won’t pretend that any of this will be either easy or quick: to be honest, it’s usually tortuous, tedious and tendentious, a lot of very hard, very challenging and often personally-painful work. Yet the reason for doing it – the reason we must do it – is, again, that unfortunately it is the only way that works: and there’s no viable way to get round that fact. Oh well…

Over to you for comment, anyway?