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Winter 2007 Edition
JOHN   HOWARD   SOCIETY   OF   ALBERTA

The Reporter

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scales of justice

Community Issues in Criminal Justice

"It is never right to do wrong or to requite wrong with wrong, or when we suffer evil to defend ourselves by doing evil in return.”
             Socrates 469-399 BC


Of Rights & Responsibilities

“With rights come responsibilities.” It is likely that most Canadian citizens would wholeheartedly agree with this statement. We have many rights in a free and democratic society, but they are accompanied by the many responsibilities that we are obliged to fulfill in return for those rights. For example, we have a right to ownership of real and personal property, and the responsibility to not take the property of others. The majority (but not all) of our fundamental rights and freedoms are set out in The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Constitution Act 1982), while our responsibilities are set out in the hundreds of federal and provincial statutes and the common law all of which forms the basis for “The Rule of Law” that is the foundation of our society. And, of course, there are our societal norms which, while not having the force of law, nonetheless guide how we conduct ourselves with each other in a civil society.

The English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, in his treatise, Leviathan, published in 1651, was the first to describe the “social contract”, the essence of which is that without society we would all live in a state of nature where we would each have unlimited natural freedoms. But the natural consequence of this is that each and every one of us has the right to all things, and thus the freedom to harm anyone else to obtain what “is rightfully ours”, or to “preserve what is rightfully ours”. There are no positive or community rights (there is no community), only the laws of nature leading to an endless “war of all against all.” To avoid this state of affairs, each of us has implicitly agreed to a “social contract”, whereby we receive certain civil rights and protections from the state, in return for which we agree to relinquish some of our unfettered rights and freedoms and to honour the rights of others. Thus we give up certain rights and freedoms, and take on certain responsibilities, in return for which the state (i.e.: the government) provides us the protections and other services that we deem necessary for, not just our survival, but our comfort and well-being.

The “social contract” is a philosophical construct – it does not actually exist as a written document. But it serves the useful purpose of helping to conceptualize the relationship between the state and its citizens; or more particularly, the basis for the legitimate exercise of authority by the state over its citizens. In return for the protection of certain rights and freedoms, the state has the authority to enforce compliance with responsibilities, and failure to comply with these responsibilities allows the state to take punitive measures.

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