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Philippa Taylor: The rights culture is a selfish dead end


Current debates about reproductive issues are an ethical minefield. Discussion about whether to create ‘three parent embryos’ is the latest in a long list of rapid medical and social changes that are pushing against our legal and ethical boundaries.

Society seems to flounder from one issue to the next, trying to find a way forward that is acceptable to all, with little to guide except something we call ‘rights’.

Rights are meant to give us real guidance out how to go forward: ‘I have the right to have a baby’, ‘to not have a baby’, ‘to have a baby without blemish’, ‘to have a baby without any disease’, ‘to have a baby at 50’, ‘to use a surrogate’, ‘to die when I want’. The list goes on.

But appealing to so-called rights actually resolves little.

It doesn’t take much common sense to realise that my ‘rights’ conflict and compete with other’s rights: mother vs child, father vs mother, child vs sperm donor, child vs child, surrogate vs genetic parent vs child, patient vs doctor.  The list goes on.

In our culture ‘rights’ have developed from the post-enlightenment tradition with its emphasis on the individual. While individualism and autonomy is rightly valued it is not absolute and must be in a context of relatedness and interdependence. Rights theory has moved from rights to ‘my rights’, and in effect to ‘my wants’ and personal preferences, but dressed up in rights language. More than that, it has become an injustice to deny ‘my rights’. In our highly individualistic ‘me’ culture self-gratification is the leading value. This leads us to treat others as means to our ends or to sacrifice anything that stands in the way of our wants – dependent relatives, unborn children etc. To a greater or lesser extent we are all culpable.

The problem is, of course, we are not isolated individuals. We are in inter-dependent relationships, families, institutions and communities. So the personal right to watch porn in privacy has implications for our personal relationships and for those exploited by the film industry. My right to drive a car affects pollution levels and congestion. My right to die means someone else has an obligation to kill me. My right to use a surrogate exploits another woman’s body.

So we are in the impossible situation of trying to arbitrate between competing wants (dressed up as rights). Governments attempt to referee these but they can never balance the ‘wants’ of every group. So they try to make it up as we go along, relying on fluctuating opinion polls, focus groups and public consultations.

What is needed is an acknowledgement of our culpability, a reaffirmation of others as having equal intrinsic value and worth, and a bigger frame of reference – that of the common good.

This means not looking out just for me, but for those affected by my decisions: partners, children, parents and communities. My decisions will be brought into the sharpest relief when they affect people who are the most vulnerable or least able to defend themselves.

And it means that the State should not just try to balance competing ‘wants’ of different groups, it must provide a bigger moral vision and values for the common good of all its citizens, especially the most vulnerable. Values that emphasise mutual obligation among all sections society, that promote interdependence not independence, responsibility not rights, selflessness not selfishness.

To ‘love our neighbour as ourselves’ is a good place to start.

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Philippa Taylor
Philippa Taylor
Philippa Taylor is Head of Public Policy at the Christian Medical Fellowship @PhilippaTaylor_

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