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Human rights and the golden rule

Elliott Pearce | Sunday, February 10, 2013

When I first applied to be a Viewpoint columnist at the beginning of the year, I told the editor my column would be about human rights and human dignity. Today, I want to examine the sources of all our rights. Specifically, I will investigate whether or not a pluralistic society can find an objective, universal justification based on reason alone for granting certain rights to its members. I believe that such a justification exists, and that it comes from a proper understanding of the so-called “golden rule’s” importance for the happiness of individual people and for all people in a society.
Many would say the government grants them to us. This makes sense up to a point, because governments do pass laws and write constitutions that state what they believe are their people’s rights. They also use their military and police forces, as well as their powers of taxation and redistribution of wealth, to uphold all of these rights, both negative – like rights to life, liberty, and property – and positive – like those to food and medical care – that they grant to their citizens.
Because governments appear to create and sustain the rights their citizens enjoy, many believe that governments are the fundamental source of rights. These people forget, however, that some governments, like that of the United States, were created by their societies after the overthrow of their previous governments specifically for the purpose of protecting what the people believed were their rights. This suggests human beings form their own ideas of their rights independent of what their governments choose to enumerate and uphold. If not from governments, then where do our notions of “right” come from?
Some, including the writers of the United States’ Declaration of Independence, say these rights come from God. When everyone in a given society agrees on one idea of God and the rights that follow from it, God provides a sufficient justification for a society’s rights. In many modern societies, though, large segments of the population disagree as to whether or not there is a God, what form that God takes and what rights follow from a given understanding of God. As any Notre Dame student knows, telling someone who does not believe in God that something is a right “because God says so” does not work very well. Therefore, those who live in pluralistic societies must find justifications for their rights that do not appeal to any particular idea of God.
I would like to propose we use the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” or perhaps Immanuel Kant’s or John Rawl’s versions thereof if you feel the original golden rule is too trite, to determine what should count as a rights and how far we should go in upholding them. One should follow the golden rule regardless of their religious beliefs for his or her good. Even someone who believes human beings are no more than very smart animals cannot deny that people are also very dangerous animals. Everyone knows not to do things to a bear that it does not like for fear of provoking an attack, so one should have the same respect for human beings.
What if one person has so much more power than another that he believes he can abuse that person with impunity? I propose this circumstance occurs far less often than most people think. The frustrating resilience of terrorists and militias against which our military has fought for the last decade attest to this fact. One may succeed in violating another’s rights for a time, but the more prolonged and egregious these violations become, the more likely it is the violator will provoke a stronger response than he can withstand.
One can use the golden rule to understand positive rights as well, like those to food and medical care. Even a committed capitalist must admit if too many people in a given society do not think they can acquire the basic necessities of life through labor, they will appropriate what they believe they deserve through government redistribution of wealth or even violent action. Therefore, the wealthy have good reason to look after the poor.
Using the golden rule as our guide, we can define rights in this way: one must recognize another’s right to those things that any person would fight to defend or to acquire. I believe this definition is powerful and universal because it is based not on the presence of external moral strictures that one may or may not recognize, but on one’s regard for his own well-being and on fear of conflict with those as dangerous as himself.

Elliott Pearce is a senior Program of Liberal Studies and mathematics major from Knott Hall. He can be reached at epearce1@nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.