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When Rights Conflict

09/23/10

Permalink 11:12:00 pm, by Brandon Norgaard Email , 729 words   English (US)
Categories: Morality

When Rights Conflict

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post explaining why I believe people have natural rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. More recently, I wrote a post explaining why I don't believe that these rights extend to animals. Now, I just want to reiterate briefly what it means for humans to have the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This means is that it is morally right for us all to 1) respect other people's choices in what to do in their life 2) treat other people as you would want to be treated, which presumably is to not cause suffering and instead to try to make happiness available to others 3) respect the lives of other people, which means whether another lives or dies is their own choice and it is morally wrong to think you know better than someone else whether to end their life.

As I mentioned before, this does leave some unresolved questions. For one thing, it is clear that it is impossible to act this way all of the time because the right to freedom often conflicts with the right to happiness in many situations. For example, if everyone is completely free to do whatever they wish all the time, then this would allow some people to harm or kill other people. Situations like this happen all of the time and they are often times unintentional. One person's freedom to stretch their arms may infringe upon a nearby person's pursuit of happiness if they just want to be left alone. One person may pursue happiness by stealing from others, thus infringing on these other people's pursuit of happiness.

So since it is impossible for us to respect other people's rights all of the time, how should we act? Should we act to ensure that our own life, liberty, and happiness are maximized before concerning ourselves with the rights of others? If we decide to respect the rights of others in addition to our own, what do we do when our possible future actions might respect certain rights over others, such as the freedom of one group over the happiness of another group? If there is a conflict amongst people's rights, should we always favor personal freedom over the pursuit of happiness? Or perhaps should we go the opposite way and always favor people's pursuit of happiness over freedom? Should we find some middle ground between these two extremes? Are there situations where some people's freedom or happiness should be chosen over the lives of others?

These are difficult questions, and to address them we need to look clearly at the nature of life, liberty, and happiness. It is clear that one must have life in order to have liberty or to pursue happiness. If one is dead then it is difficult to see how they can have any liberty or happiness. Though it is theoretically possible for there to be an afterlife, we shall assume that it is worse to die than to endure any degree of suffering or lack of liberty. Any person, if alive, can strive to overcome their suffering. If dead, they do not have this choice. So in light of this, I conclude that it is best to always respect people's right to life before all else. There is no amount of suffering or liberty that can measure up to the value of life itself.

Now, as for the question of what to do when the other two rights of liberty and the pursuit of happiness conflict with each other, the best thing to do is to try to balance the two. When faced with choices where some will likely provide greater freedom for people at the likely expense of happiness or vice versa, we should try to guarantee a minimum for everyone. So we should figure out what minimum level of happiness and liberty everyone should have and try our hardest not to deny people this minimum. If we have the ability to provide resources to others and to ourselves that goes beyond this minimum, then this is great, but we should try not to use anyone as a means to an to an end.

What are your thoughts on this topic? What theory of ethics makes the most sense? Let your voice be heard in the forum.
You can also email the me at brandon@enlightenedworldview.com

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