The Rights Test

HOW TO USE THE RIGHTS TEST

Recognition of the respect owed to all persons gives a basis for three approaches to deciding right and wrong, the Rights Test, the Exceptions Test, and the Choices Test.

A.  INTRODUCE THE TEST

Ask: “Are we respecting human rights.”

B. WHY IS THIS A VALID WAY TO DECIDE RIGHT AND WRONG?

People are familiar with the idea of rights and are quick to use the word to explain

•    a claim they have against others,

•    why they are entitled to something from society or others

•    why they should be protected from actions that benefit society or others at  our expense.

Rights are not an empirical fact of human life and are understood differently in different societies and periods of history. Rights are a way of thinking that recognises human beings as valuable in and of themselves (intrinsic value), regardless of their physical and mental attributes or position in society and regardless of what they are worth to others (extrinsic value).  Animals also have rights, though most people would claim it is a more limited set.

Rights indicate the freedoms or the material conditions required for this value.  Without the ability to express his/her political or religious beliefs, for example, or to vote, (liberty rights), or without food, clothing, health care, education, or employment (welfare rights), an individual human cannot live in a way that expresses that intrinsic value.

None of these rights have any validity, however, if we do not recognise the intrinsic value in human beings.  Why recognise that value in others?  Because we recognise it in ourselves, and recognise that others are equal to us.  If I recognise that I have rights, others must also have rights unless I can explain why they are not entitled to what I am entitled to.

C.  APPLY THE TEST

STEP 1: Identify the right being upheld or violated.

•    Liberty rights, such as the right to property, to free speech, to religion, and so on, are protections against the encroachment of society or other individuals.

•    Welfare rights, such as the right to food, clothing, education, health care, and so on, are indications of what we need in order to live a life worth of human beings.  Individuals and society may have obligations to help me obtain these if they are available and I have done my part to obtain them.

•    An extensive listing of what many take to be essential human rights is contained in the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (http://www.un.org/Overview/rights.html).

STEP 2: Explain why it deserves the status of a right, because it is:

(a)  essential a person’s dignity and self worth; and/or

(b)  essential to a person’s freedom or well-being.

(c) We can explain why a right is essential by asking what would happen if the individual were denied this right and whether we would want that right respected if we were in that person’s position.

STEP 3: Ask whether that right conflicts with other rights or with the rights of others.  When rights conflict, decide which has precedence by explaining why each right is important and showing the consequences for dignity and self worth (or freedom and well being) if the right is not protected.  Ethical people can disagree about which right is more important since no ranking principle is universally accepted.

D. DRAW A CONCLUSION

Explain briefly how the Rights principle does or does not apply in this case.  Remember, save the rights hammer for the really big issues.

E.  STRENGTHS OF THE RIGHTS TEST

Human rights have become a very powerful tool across the world for showing respect for people.  Others pay attention when you advance a claim that someone’s rights are being violated.

F.  WEAKNESSES OF THE RIGHTS TEST

•    Rights are considered by some to be absolute.  Rights sometimes conflict with other rights and with the overall good of all those affected.  Solving these conflicts means that rights might have to be subordinated.

•    Many people do not understand there is not a universally recognised list of rights so a person must defend his/her claim that something is a human right.

•    Because of its power, the rights test is sometimes applied to situations that are not serious enough to qualify as a threat to a person’s rights. This test is not  helpful in ordinary circumstances.

© 2009  J. Brooke Hamilton III, Ph.D.

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