In this great age when we have the luxury of debating whether health-care is a fundamental human right, let us not lose sight of the fact that human “rights” are not something that really exist, in some kind of ultimate or material sense. They are a product of the human imagination and though they have proven their utility countless times are nonetheless a matter of convention, not some kind of divine commandments written into our genetic material. I only feel the need to point this out because many people also fail to realize that their immutable “rights” can often come into conflict! Because they are regarded as the highest human truths, as some infallible laws of nature, rights can also become a stumbling block for real human progress.
It is unquestionable, for example, that a living, breathing human being has the “right” to live. What happens, then, if we stick ten people on a deserted island with a finite supply of food and water? Now, all of them have a “right” to live, but this grand human truth doesn’t get us anywhere in terms of solving the basic question of politics: who gets what? Perhaps “rights” really are the highest and most perfect truth accessible to man, but the sad reality is that we were not placed on a perfect planet, or a planet perfectly suitable to the satisfaction of our highest ideals.
Rights usually involve some freedom or another, such as the freedom to breath, live, pursue property (Locke), or pursue happiness (Jefferson). However, we already find a plethora of conflicts between the rights even in this small list. A coal factory owner who is trying to pursue his right to property and happiness while serving the general public with electricity that will allow their pursuit of such things might be in direct violation of everyone’s right to breath.
That being said, it seems utterly baffling that having children is somehow considered a human right by many. Now, the basic logic doesn’t escape me. Most consider the production of offspring as one of the most meaningful things a human being can do, and thus it would seem to be inline both with a right to life and a right to pursue happiness. However, let’s not forget that the right to life applies to the living, not to those yet to be conceived. Moreover, we have the right to pursue happiness, not to get it! It is furthermore important to note that procreation involves bringing a conscious being into the world that neither asked to be born, nor to be stuck with the genes and environment that the genetic lottery assigns it. If we so quickly prohibit any action that may limit the above human freedoms, how can we so cavalierly condone a practice that often times places another human being in a situation worse than a penitentiary? After all, in jail you get a warm bed and food, which is more than a good portion of humanity enjoys every day.
Whenever I seem to overhear a conversation about rights, it is always implied that life is a gift and the environment a veritable Eden. However, with an overpopulated globe we now face the dilemma that each new child born produces a greater imbalance in the planets ecosystem and further tightens the stranglehold of scarcity on the rest of us as well as on this new addition to the race. Every new high school graduate deepens the labor pool while making the job pool ever shallower.
So instead of wasting time asking whether health-care is a “human right,” as if someday we would find a missing stone tablet where such a maxim could be verified, let us ask ourselves “can we afford to treat it as one?” Let’s put things back into perspective and look at our immutable rights for what they are, a tremendous and blessed luxury! Humanity has fought tooth and nail for this little sliver of civilization, so lets never take it for granted or assume this state of affairs as the norm, for such a thing is the apogee of decadence. Moreover, let us not succumb to the desire to be free of the burden of thinking, but instead constantly question and refine our highest ideals. Even if one takes moral realism for granted and postulates some kind of “strange attractors” or a world of moral truth akin to the world of mathematical truth, one must still posit that we discover this world a piece at a time and cannot use the most recently discovered pieces to solve every problem. After all, we only recently had to invent (or discover) non-Euclidean geometries to solve various natural puzzles for which classical geometry was woefully inadequate. Why should we presume that 1) we have reached the apex of the moral dialectic with our current notion of rights, and 2) that this plateau of moral understanding can be used to solve all of our moral problems? Even if one takes Peter Singer’s idea of an expanding moral circle seriously, this expansion is not the evolution of the basic stuff of morality, but the tweaking of a single “parameter,” to use Steven Pinker’s language; namely, the parameter of how widely we can apply the basic stuff of morality. It seems we are now at a stage in the moral dialectic in which we can imagine expanding the circle, imagine tweaking this parameter so dramatically as to include all human beings (but stopping short of including all life on earth), but yet haven’t quite worked out how to act on or practically implement such a scheme.