How do you determine rights?

Rights are kind of a tricky issue.  We have come a long way from the past where rights were fewer.  What I mean is today we seem to have more rights than in previous generations.  Put another way, rights are things we as citizens are entitled to in virtue of our citizenship, they’re what we’re owed.  There is a distinction between positive rights and negative rights.  Essentially, positive rights impose others to provide you with goods or services.  A negative right, requires others to refrain from interfering with your actions.  In other words, positive rights require someone else to do something or provide something for you, and negative rights only require others to leave you alone.

The trend seems to be such that we are being endowed with more positive rights, which have the tendency to either conflict or become scarce.  For example, if I have a right to healthcare, someone else has the obligation to provide it to me.  This can become troublesome if doctors decide to exit the field.  Who will provide me with owed healthcare if there are too few doctors?  A right to free education, higher or general, this requires there to be an adequate number of trained and willing teachers.  Of course, it isn’t likely that we will run out of willing medical or education professionals.  But what about other newer rights?

Some people lobby for elective abortion to be instituted as a right.  Women, they argue, have the right to an abortion if they so choose.  But this presumes that there will be a continuous number of doctors willing to perform them.  However, the number of doctors willing to perform abortions are trending downward, and so have the number of abortion clinics.  How would one who considers elective abortion a right go about exercising that right if the numbers of clinics and doctors willing to participate become too few, or even non-existent?

How about another example: Same-sex marriage.  This hot-button issue is always a current event.  We regularly see the issue on ballots for amendments to state’s constitutions.  Thus far, attempts to redefine marriage to include same-sex couples has been unsuccessful.  However, a federal court has recently ruled the Defense Of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional.  What if someday soon, same-sex marriage becomes universally legal — and a right — in the United States?  There will be many who preside over wedding ceremonies who will resist and refuse to violate their moral intuitions.

I suppose one could argue that if you’re in the medical or matrimony business you must participate in aspects of your field regardless of your moral objections or else find a new profession.  In fact, I have run into people with this very mentality.  But hypothetically speaking, what if they all took that admonition to its end and simply left the business?  Would you have the right to force them to violate their right to a profession of their choice?

Of course I’m using controversial issues in my examples, because let’s face it, not many people have a moral objection to teaching children reading, writing, and arithmetic, or mending fractured limbs for that matter.  The issue of compelling someone against their will to provide a good or service will only arise through moral conflicts.  The ultimate question is this: At what point do your positive rights trump another’s negative rights?  Under what circumstances do your real or perceived rights grant you the power to force another to act against their will?

Comments

  1. I think it’s also worth noting that all the rights in the U.S. Bill of Rights are negative rights. Furthermore, I think the language of the Ninth Amendment indicates that the Bill of Rights only recognizes negative rights (more detail on that at http://thenullspace.wordpress.com/2011/07/16/on-rights/).

    Ultimately, the problem with “positive rights” — as you point out — is that there will inevitably be cases where it is economically impossible for the government to provide them. This leads to the absurd situation where the government is “violating” your (positive) rights despite its best efforts. What are you going to do in that situation? Sue the government to honor your “rights”? It can’t! It has no choice but to “violate” your “rights”.

    • Null

      I agree. I just don’t see how adding positive rights by the government can be any good. I had the right to medical treatment in mind when I wrote the post (Obamacare). If we legislate that we have a right to health care, how do you morally go about securing and enjoying that right if people become unwilling to provide it?

  2. The lack of understanding of positive vs. negative rights is at the root of most political issues. I like to use the example of a remote area with few people. If they have a right to abortion, who has the obligation to perform it? And so on.

    • eMatters, this was ultimately where I’m going with this. How does one personally come to the conclusions of what are rights? How in your thought process do you determine what others owe you? And on what grounds and by what means to you collect on these rights?

  3. “The number of doctors willing to perform abortions are trending downward, and so have the number of abortion clinics”
    This is only because anti-choice legislation has made legal abortion difficult. The recent VA law targeted abortion clinics by applying new unnecessary requirements that require abortion providers to be in entirely different buildings. In other cases, terrorism by anti-choice advocates including death threats, bombings, and assassinations have made abortion providers fear for their lives. States like Mississippi have used vigilante justice to make sure abortion is illegal in practice. Implying that this reduced availability is due to some moral objection by doctors turns a blind eye to the violence that led to the trend.

    “There will be many who preside over wedding ceremonies who will resist and refuse to violate their moral intuitions.”
    Nonsense. This idea that clergy will be forced to provide wedding services is a dishonest scare tactic used especially in the military. No clergy has every been forced to solemnize a wedding or even asked to. Military chaplains are specifically protected from having to do such a thing and anti-gay chaplain endorsers have simply lied to manufacture a situation that doesn’t exist. I will stand by any chaplain or clergy to defend their right to marry or not marry whomever they wish.
    This doesn’t apply to a justice of the peace since they are an officer of the government providing a secular marriage not a clergy member providing a religious marriage but even in the case of officers of the court, identifying an alternative person to solemnize the wedding should be more than sufficient in all but the most obscure cases.

    • Jason

      The reason that abortion providers are down is irrelevant to the fact that they are down. The question is designed to think about how one would go about cashing in on their “right” if there is no one to fulfil it.

      And what makes you think pastors will be exempt when wedding halls, photographers, and bed and breakfast owners aren’t?

  4. “The ultimate question is this: At what point do your positive rights trump another’s negative rights?”

    The answer to that is that the doctor with the knowledge,money, institutional power, and personal health should sacrifice on behalf of the patient who lacks knowledge, money, institutional power or personal health. In addition, the greatest impact of abortion, contraception, and other medical services is on the patient, not the doctor, so in that case as well, the patient’s rights take precedence over the doctor’s rights. Finally, the doctor is in a profession and has taken not only a job but an oath in which he or she chose to learn and practice for the benefit of patients. When doctors act in their personal interests by withholding information or services or bullying their patients, then they are betraying their patients and their profession.

  5. This is a confusing subject, and I think you have misrepresented positive rights a little bit. Both kinds of rights are in-principle commitments to fellow citizens, the commitments to not do things tend to be more concrete and easier to achieve. Positive commitments are things we are bound to do our best to achieve. A right to healthcare just means that as a group we will try to take care of sick members of the group to the limit that circumstances allow. It doesn’t mean that we guarantee people will survive metastatic ovarian cancer, or any other such absurdity. It does mean we must take on the burden of those commitments. For instance, if Dick Cheney rolled into my ER, my first reaction would be,”I’m not taking care of that contemptible P.O.S!”. If I worked in a private clinic that did not take medicare, I would have made no commitment to be part of the public healthcare system and I could tell him to take a hike. As it is, I work in a public hospital that does take medicare, so I have made a commitment to take care of people who present with an emergency condition whether or not they can pay and whether or not I like them, so in Mr. Cheney’s case, I’d have to swallow hard and do my best to take care of him. I’m not obligated to take him into my home and empty his bedpan once he is well enough to leave the hospital, so we have been able to sort out the limits of this positive right fairly well already. You seem to have the difference between negative and positive rights mixed up when it comes to civil rights too. Other people can’t stop you from having an abortion. Other people can’t stop you from getting married if you’re gay. Other people can’t stop you from wearing a crucifix in public. These are not positive rights in the first place

    • Keith

      Maybe you misunderstood me when I gave my examples. I agree with you that having the right to not have anyone prevent you from seeking and obtaining an abortion, and get married are negative rights. But there are some people out there who believe their “rights” go beyond having the freedom to seek them. They believe they are entitled to have the procedure and ceremony provided. They believe they have the right to have healthcare administered.

      In this way their belief that they have those rights fulfilled, it is then incumbent on someone to fulfil them, which is a positive right, which is what I’m talking about. If this is the case, then if there is no one willing to provide an abortion or perform the ceremony, it follows that someone (the government) would have to force someone to fulfil the rights.

  6. My thought is that we need to differentiate between human rights and granted (aka civil) rights. Human rights are the rights we have simply for being human. Life. Freedom. Free speech. That sort of thing. Granted rights are privileges. They are rights granted by the state that we have to earn or qualify for. Voting is a very important right, but it not a human right. Voting is restricted by things like age, citizenship/membership, and so on. Education is a human right, tied to our freedom rights, but schooling isn’t.

    Marriage is not a human right. Never has been. Marriage has *always* had restrictions on it, some quite severe. The redefinition of marriage being all about romantic love and fairytale ideals, rather then a responsibility, obligation, etc., has done a lot to weaken the role of marriage in our society.

    Abortion, of course, cannot be a human, or even a granted, right, since it infringes on the most basic of human rights: life. I’ve been struck by how so many pro-abortion people I know are also staunch animal rights activists. They want animals to have the same rights as humans, yet they deny underdeveloped humans their very humanity. Abortion is not even a matter of health care rights, since pregnancy is not a disease that requires curing – another area pro-aborts are off the wall when they talk about the “trauma” of pregnancy, and how terrible and dangerous it is, while completely denying the trauma that an abortion causes, no matter how smooth the proceedure. Interestingly, when doing research in our decision to have our second child at home rather then a hospital, I found that the main place pregnancy is dangerous is in hospitals and from doctors. Iotrogenic injuries and negative outcomes are far more prevelent then natural ones – something I experienced myself with my first birth. I would honestly advise pregant women to stay away from doctors and hospitals as much as they can, and preferably birth at home.

    People are far too keen to push for granted rights as though they were human rights, and restrict human rights as if they were granted rights.

  7. That may be true, but if so those people are mistaken in the first two cases. In the case of healthcare, we decided (quite awhile ago) that we would provide people with healthcare, within certain limits – it is in fact a right (there is a poster with that wording on the door of our Emergency Room). Of course, the limits are the tricky part. Sorry if I misinterpreted your examples.

    • Keith

      Yes you are still kind of missing it. You are correct that we have a willing population of doctors to provide healthcare. The question however, is what do we do if there no more people willing to provide healthcare. What if no one wanted to be a doctor anymore. If people become sick and there are no doctors, but healthcare is a right, how does that right get fulfilled? I used the example of abortion and same sex marriage because those are controversial issues, ones that conceivably could have no willing participants. If they are “rights” but no one is willing to perform them, how do people get their abortions and gay marriage ceremonies except to force people against their will?

  8. They simply don’t. That is already the case with abortion in some regions of the US. There are no providers and if a woman wants an elective abortion, she must travel to get it. A doctor draft is not forthcoming. Do you know of anyone who is seriously proposing such a thing? Sounds like a bogeyman to me.

    • I’m not sure what else to do. You don’t seem to grasping the point. This is necessarily about abortion, it was an example. The point is how we go about determining rights. At some point in positive rights one person is obligated to another, possibly against his will.

  9. No, I understand. Positive rights just don’t entail the sort of obligation you think they do; just the ordinary sort of obligation that comes with living in an organized society. The situation with abortion services and EMTALA exemplify that. We determine positive rights based on what we think our society ought to try to provide its members, if it can, and negative rights based on what we think our society ought to avoid doing to its members. Conflicts may arise within and between those projects, but that has always been the case and is simply a consequence of social organization.

    • Ok Keith

      Let’s see if I can get you to answer a direct question. Let’s say (i.e., hypothetically) that elective abortion on demand were a right — not just the right to pursue getting one, the actual right to actually obtain one, as in she is owed an abortion by the abortion industry as soon as she decides she wants it. Let’s also say (still hypothetically) that every abortion doctor in America exercised their right to quit the business. How would women go about exercising their right to an abortion?

  10. You’ve never seen Life of Brian, have you? Women won’t get abortions, because we don’t treat rights like that. “Ought to” does not mean “must”. You have a right to freedom of speech, but nobody is proposing that you are therefore entitled to a megaphone. Nor can you yell “fire” in a crowded movie theater. Rights in society are not black and white in fact, even if we talk about them in principle as if they were.

  11. TerranceH says:

    This is only because anti-choice legislation has made legal abortion difficult.

    It’s not possible that many doctors also have a moral objection to the practice?

    The recent VA law targeted abortion clinics by applying new unnecessary requirements that require abortion providers to be in entirely different buildings. In other cases, terrorism by anti-choice advocates including death threats, bombings, and assassinations have made abortion providers fear for their lives.

    While I don’t condone violence myself, even against such disgusting people as abortion providers, I can’t say I’m displeased with the result such threats have produced. The more unborn lives we save, the better.

    States like Mississippi have used vigilante justice to make sure abortion is illegal in practice.

    It’s wonderful, isn’t it>

    Nonsense. This idea that clergy will be forced to provide wedding services is a dishonest scare tactic used especially in the military.

    It’s possible. If homosexuals are finding it impossible to exercise their rights, perhaps churches will have their tax-exempt status held over their head. People like you already oppose their tax-exempt status, right? It’d make you giddy, wouldn’t it? EIther religious institutions would be forced to marry homosexuals – or forced to pay taxes. Either way, the churches lose and you get a hard-on.

    I know how you sick libs think.

  12. JB, Looks like Terrance is promoting the killing of abortion doctors. Is that your policy? I’m glad he was at least honest about his violent radicalism.

    “Either religious institutions would be forced to marry homosexuals or forced to pay taxes” – and this is nonsense. It’s just a lie. No one is suggesting that, and I’ll defend churches and chaplains just the same against any suggestion that they be forced to marry anyone. And no, I don’t oppose tax-exempt status for churches. If churches or any other nonprofit engages in partisan politics (that means supporting candidates, advocating for issues is still in-bounds) then they are breaking the restrictions of their status and can’t be tax exempt anymore. Simple rules applied to all nonprofits.

  13. TerranceH says:

    JB, Looks like Terrance is promoting the killing of abortion doctors. Is that your policy? I’m glad he was at least honest about his violent radicalism.

    Pay no mind, John. Jason likes to inflate the remarks of others. I said: While I don’t condone violence myself, even against such disgusting people as abortion providers, I can’t say I’m displeased with the result such threats have produced.

    Meaning, I’m pleased that abortion clinics are closing, as Jason said.

    It’s just a lie. No one is suggesting that, and I’ll defend churches and chaplains just the same against any suggestion that they be forced to marry anyone. And no, I don’t oppose tax-exempt status for churches.

    Can you blame me for not believing someone as rabidly anti-religion as yourself?

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