Rights Talk

Human rights are constantly in the news in one way or another. It has become the main way of talking about ethics in public. People frequently refer to rights as the absolute moral norm, the universal moral truth. Human rights offer something which no religion can. They have been signed up to by almost all countries, crossing boundaries of culture and religion, and they are frequently backed up by laws in countries themselves, such as the human Act in the UK. They seem to represent a universal morality, a common agreed code. However, there are problems with this approach Firstly, some say rights are culturally conditioned, that they represent a European or Western perspective on human dignity which clashes with ideas of human dignity from other parts of the world. In other words, human rights are tainted with a kind of moral imperialism. Rights are used to measure and judge the activities of other cultures, but if they represent a certain cultural perspective, is this indeed imperialistic? Secondly, how about the fact that the existence of human rights doesn’t seem to stop very large numbers of people have nasty things done to them. Rights are given to people by countries but they are taken away whenever a country decides it wants to. Religious laws are perhaps more difficult to change. They don’t depend upon the government giving you your dignity, but more often than not it is God that gives people their dignity. Thirdly there is the question of all the other aspects of morality which seem important but don’t seem to be covered by rights. What about acting according to conscience – taking responsibility and going on regardless of what some power or authority thinks. Many of the good people in history showed their greatness by being prepared to go against what most others and sometimes the government thought was right. Socrates, Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King to name but a few, can all be seen as standing up to a kind of ‘accepted normal morality’ and challenging it. If Morality is all about following rights, and that means following the Law then what happens when the Law is wrong? Aquinas said a bad law is no law at all and Joseph Fletcher was very concerned about legalistic Ethics choosing a much more situational and personal approach. If all our moral talk is of rights, then perhaps we are adopting a legalistic way of talking and limiting our moral scope. Perhaps we need to expand our moral language beyond discussions of rights.

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