How often we hear of human rights and how little we hear of human responsibilities. How can we have one without the other? Every right suggests a claim and every claim suggests a responsibility. What makes human rights “work” is our ability to discern when particular human rights claims ought to be responsibly fulfilled and when particular claims are, in fact, a threat to either the good of the individual or the good of society.
This is what Ryan Anderson was getting at recently when he pointed out that rights are “grounded in and thus limited by the demands of justice and common good“.
An appeal to human rights that places an inordinate emphasis on, for instance, autonomy and individualism, is an appeal that fails to consider the entire spectrum of human goods—which include justice, the common good, and the exercise of virtue.
Your right to do as you wish will eventually conflict with another’s right to do as they wish. Your “human rights” don’t include a right to suicide by physician, for instance, for the same reason that a physician’s rights do include the right to act in accord with their conscience and the historic ethics of the medical profession to do no harm.
But “rights talk” has become confusing because we increasingly lack any shared ethical vision for what human life is “for” beyond autonomy, individualism, and material satisfactions.
Is there a way out of the forest of our confusion? Start by asking yourself what you’re willing to strive towards; asking what person or future are you willing to sacrifice for? In thinking about this, we might realize that we’re contemplating goods that are higher than ourselves.
In recognizing that there are goods outside of, and perhaps of higher value than, ourselves we catch the first glimpses of light out of the forest.