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Ethics: Where are you? part 10

July 2, 2010

Rights ethics are human rights that emerged during the writing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen as a stand against absolute sovereignty. “In theory, these documents recognized the equal right of all humans, but this was not the case in actual practice” (Boss, 2008, p. 357) which is why the Women’s Rights Movement and the UN Declaration of Human Rights were formed. Social activists wanted the Bill of Rights to be more than the paper on which the laws were written.

John Locke and Thomas Hobbes were both proponents of natural rights and believed that “the primary purpose of government is to protect humans in the exercise of their equal rights” (p. 364). John Locke argued that the rights inherent in our state of human nature and our relationship to property included “the rights to life, liberty, and property” (p. 365). Locke believed a democracy was the best form of government to protect our natural rights.

Like Locke, Ayn Rand believed that “moral rights define and protect our freedoms without imposing obligations on anyone else” (p. 369). Unlike Locke, Rand believed in laissez-faire capitalism. Annette Baier approached the issue of natural rights as a contemporary ethicist through her theory that natural rights liberalism “does not take into account the limitations placed upon marginalized groups by traditional societal roles” (p. 369). She was referring to marginalized groups such as women and children.

The Marxist critique of natural rights ethics is that people in power use this theory to justify that fact that those who can afford to own property and businesses remain in power because even though everyone has the right to own property and businesses, not everyone can afford to do so. Marxists believe the government should provide all the things we have rights to. Marx believed in “communal ownership of property and the means of production rather than individual ownership” (p. 373). Liberation ethics, according to Gutierrez, supports “the rights of those who have been oppressed and plundered by the world” (p. 375).

Liberation ethics emerged historically because of the “natural rights emphasis on abstract concepts of equality and democracy” that were not being put into practice (p. 375).

Duty-based rights ethics are “not granted but are rather something to which we are entitled” and “Others have a duty to honor our rights” (p. 376). Natural rights do not necessarily “create a duty on the part of others to honor or fulfill that right” (p. 376). Jeremy Bentham did not support natural rights which he felt were not inalienable because rights came from the principle of utility. Kant believed that “God has provided the bounty of nature, but dividing up the goods has been left to humans” (p. 378). The Catholic church believes in the duties rights theory of natural rights.

Buddhists see rights, especially rights for all living creatures, not just humans, as a rights ethics in which there exists an “interdependence [between] all living beings” and that it is “our duty not to harm other living beings” (p. 398).

“Most philosophers consider rights to be prima facie rather than absolute” (p. 398). I believe that we are socialized to naturally believe and act on rights in our culture because there are different theories of the rights in a democracy and the rights in a capitalist society. Depending on which type of society a person lived in, that society’s moral values would be the basis for the individual’s rights theory.

Rights ethics is the theory that people are entitled to rights as members of society. Rights ethics emerged in the form of the U.S. Declaration of Independence and later in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights initiated by citizens to counteract the absolute sovereignty of kings. John Locke supported natural rights ethics and that rights were a part of human nature independent of duties. Locke was against absolute sovereignty. Karl Marx was a critic of natural rights ethics. Marx believed that rights were not an abstract idea, but came along with being a member of society. He also believed that just because people had a right did not mean they had the power or tools to exercise that right (such as owning land). We are entitled to duty-based rights.

Natural rights do not always have a corresponding duty. Buddhist rights ethics weaves an interdependence between humans, nonhuman animals, and all other beings and the most important duty of a human is to not cause harm. The two types of moral rights are liberty (negative rights) and welfare (positive rights). Liberty rights give us the freedom to pursue our interests without interfering with others’ rights to do the same. Welfare rights give us the right to have what we need to live. Rights belong only to those in the moral community. Most philosophers believe that rights are important, but it is the origin and nature of the rights on which they differ.

“Abduction Charges Against U.S. Missionaries in Haiti Spark Controversy” from

In summary, this article is about a group of Idaho missionaries who were in Haiti to offer their help after the earthquake and who “tried to round up children they presumed to be orphans, but had no training or paperwork.” The missionaries were arrested and detained on child abduction charges. At least one of the missionaries had been forewarned, but had not shared that information with the other missionaries, not to take the children out of the country without going through the proper channels and getting the necessary paperwork. In this scenario, the missionary who had been forewarned, but then went ahead and took the children anyway, may have been acting as an autonomous moral agent, “a self-determining person who looks to his or her own reason for moral guidance” (Boss, 2008, p. G-1).

Also, the missionary, by ignoring the warning, was guilty of civil disobedience, which is “the refusal on moral grounds, to obey certain government laws, for the purpose of trying to bring about a change in legislation or government policy” (Boss, p. G-1). Perhaps the original intention of the missionary was not to change a policy, but in order to rescue the orphans, the missionary was willing to take actions to make it possible to get the orphans out of the country. The missionary may have been experiencing a helper’s high which Boss describes as “the moral sentiment or positive effect we experience when helping others” (p. G-3).

The moral dilemma is whether or not the missionaries can be prosecuted for wanting to help the orphans but not going through the proper channels to help them. “Supporters of the missionaries have expressed outrage that their motives have been questioned.” The group of missionaries may have felt it was their moral duty to rescue the orphans, an example of deontology. Since the missionaries were part of two church groups, it is possible that they were influenced by the divine command theory which is “a type of ethical relativism that states that morality is relative to or dependent on God’s will” (Boss, G-2). The group may have felt that it was God’s will for them to rescue the children from the devastated island of Haiti. The group may also have been acting out the idea of nonmaleficence which is “the moral principle that we should do no harm” – if they had left the children in Haiti without homes and without food, that would have been harmful (Boss, G-3).

Should the motives and religious beliefs of the missionaries matter in a “court of law or court of public opinion?” Will people stop making donations to the Haiti earthquake relief because of this incident and the manner in which the missionaries were arrested and detained? Apparently not all of the children rescued by the missionaries were orphans and the parents of some of the alleged orphans had lost everything in the earthquake and had let the missionaries take their children to give the children “a better life.” It is unclear if the desperate parents understood the situation. Can the good will intention of the missionaries be proven in court? Boss states that good will is “a will that always acts from a sense of duty and reverence for moral law, without regard for consequences or for immediate inclinations” (p. G-2). This whole dilemma as to whether or not the missionary who was forewarned not to take the children was in the right or in the wrong when she took the children anyway is a good example of prima facie duty – the missionary should have followed the law, but because she did not want harm to come to the children, her moral duty to their well-being became more important than her legal duty.


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