The Filter of Human Rights
October 29, 2020
by Jeffrey Barrows DO, MA (Bioethics)
As the 2020 election draws near, I’ve been contemplating the underlying reasons some of my family members will likely vote differently than me in this election. They believe the core Christian doctrines and affirm the Bible as the Word of God. They passionately seek to follow after the Lord in all they do. Yet, when they cast their ballot this year, their choice for President will probably differ from mine. It isn’t that they disagree with me on the abhorrence of abortion or the importance of conscience rights. Factors not yet understood by me are causing them to support the alternate candidate. It seems we are viewing political issues through different filters. After musing on this question for several months, I’ve concluded that one of those filters is human rights.
The vast majority of these family members belong to a younger generation. Though raised in a Christian home, they have also grown up in a culture promoting an expansion of human rights. I’m not talking about fundamental human rights like the right to liberty and living free from exploitation. This generation grew up indoctrinated with newly invented rights such as the right to healthcare and a college education. I’ve always looked at these “rights” more as privileges to be earned rather than something to be expected from society. These younger family members seem to view the world through the lens of these rights, assigning them a priority far greater than my own. Their prioritization of these rights has influenced their interpretation of this election and the issues involved.
This view of rights differs from mine not only because it incorporates recently conceived human rights, but also because it emphasizes the rights of individuals. It is a “rights-based” approach to politics that interprets most, if not all, political issues through the filter of individual rights. This “rights-based” approach results in a more nuanced view regarding various political issues.
Take the example of abortion. Someone who prioritizes individual rights may view the act of abortion as wrong and even evil. However, this view will be tempered by the realization that abortion involves the expression of a woman’s right, something they value. Placing the individual’s right in opposition to the wrong of abortion creates varying degrees of dissonance and ambiguity toward abortion and its importance as a political issue. This ambiguity is reflected by the variety of opinions regarding abortion found within the American population. Notre Dame did a recent study of abortion attitudes in the U.S. and found that two out of three interviewees were somewhere between the pro-life and pro-abortion positions. In other words, they don’t see abortion as an absolute wrong or as an absolute right.
Another example is healthcare. Those who prioritize healthcare as an individual right will vote for the candidate universalizing healthcare with less concern for the impact that policy will have on society as a whole. The right to a college education may also receive greater priority than the resultant debt placed on society.
If I am correct that the prioritization of individual rights unduly influences these family members’ opinions, how should this view be countered? Individual rights do have their importance, but they should never become absolutized. A woman’s right to control her body should never be prioritized over the life within her womb. An individual’s right to receive a college education should never be prioritized over society’s economic health. In the parable that exemplifies how to love our neighbor, Jesus portrays the Good Samaritan as someone who gives up his rights to help a stranger. It was the priest and the Levite who maintained their rights yet failed to love their neighbor.
As Christians, we certainly possess individual rights. But the voluntary surrender of those rights to help others is a convincing demonstration of our faith. Jesus acknowledges this as He commands us to take up our cross and follow Him (Matthew 16:24). In this election season, as we decide our preferred candidate, among all the different factors to weigh, I believe Christians should carefully balance individual rights, not only against the good of the community but also against that which is morally wrong.