The Nature of Rights in Ethical Discourse

     The proliferation of rights language for rather marginal gains such as the right to eat in a smoke free environment, some have argued for a moratorium on the use of rights language in moral discourse. What is lost if the right to eat in a smoke free environment becomes “smoke free environments for eating are highly valued?”

     Aren’t  there some things so fundamental to our being a just society that merely stating that they have values misses something terribly important? When we claim these things as rights (right to life, free speech, a jury trial) we create immense obligations in others that cannot be denied by mere inconvenience or expense. The English language is rich in rights language and nothing seems to confer power on these basic claims to the same extent as framing them as rights.

     Just as inflation erodes the value of currency by decreasing its purchasing power, so does the inflation of rights language erode the value of these concepts as justified claims. Regardless of whether you have come to believe that rights are innate or formed as a result of a social contract, they remain an important and vital aspect of the legal and ethical health practice. In the foreseeable future, all patient care providers will be discussing the issue of rights as they relate to the patients we serve. The parent who wishes to decline lifesaving care for their children, the child who wishes a prescription for contraceptives without parental consent, and the physical therapist who is forced to charged less than what the market will bear for their service due to governmentally imposed cap are all involved in aspects of the rights controversy.

     The concepts of human rights, with their attendant creation of obligation, must be limited only to fundamental human needs. Three basic considerations that should be examined prior to declaring new human rights include;

  • not all human wants can or should be converted to the status of human rights.
  • human creativity allows us to imagine more rights than we can fulfill.
  • the dilution of human rights by adding new ones threatens established claims.

     The most important of these is dilution, where our creativity as human causes us to claim rights well beyond limits that can be honored and thereby reduces the meaning of rights as concepts. Soren Kierkegaard, (1813-1855) the father of christian existentialism, as correct in asserting that ethics should not become merely statistical exercise. Human rights cannot be created or lost by opinion polls. The daily will of the people is a fickle foundation. It must be remembered that in early Nazi Germany, prior to the atrocities of the holocaust  death camps, the popular will of the people first reduced the rights of the mentally ill. It is clear that in the beginning they came to forget that the most basic of our human rights is the right to be recognized and respected as equal human being.

     In our daily practice as health care providers, more good will be done in honoring the basic human rights that we already have come to know by experience and reason than in imagining a whole host of new ones. Our profession place upon us special obligations and additional duties to protect the rights of those we serve. these rights form part of the traditions and conditions of practice and bind us not only not only to our patients with whom we have entered into a voluntary contractual agreement but to society as a whole. For our society and our patients rights to be operative, we must as practitioners assume the correlative obligations that give them meaning.

     Each of us needs to develop a framework for thinking about these issues and the claims they represent. Obviously, when rights claim are deployed on all sides of single issue, they become diluted and their meaning in regard to understandable obligation is lost. Our failure to form a certain base for the development of human rights does not negate their importance. They are in some way fundamentally important as they are the essence that we share with all the humanity, The respect of human rights is the independent standard by which we judge the merit of nations and actions of individuals. Most practitioners would feel very uncomfortable in a world where the rights we have intuitively come to accept, regardless of their source, were to be removed from our moral scales.


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