Georgie De Mattos/Mustang News

Brandon Bartlett is an English sophomore and Mustang News columnist. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Mustang News editorial. 

There are few words in the modern world of political rhetoric so misused and blatantly abused as “rights,” and more often, “human rights.”

So let’s set the record straight. We need to draw a distinction between the different categories of rights. Primarily, there exists human rights, those entitlements granted to all people based upon the sole fact that they are humans, and legal rights, which are given to some people based upon the fact that they live in a specific society.

The first would be something like “life” or “liberty,” and the latter would be more akin to “the right to vote in the next presidential election.” The main distinction between these two being that the former is universal and the latter is contingent on the society to which the person belongs.

And so, it would follow that human rights are, to use a potentially problematic word, discovered, whereas legal rights are decided upon.

This is incredibly important because legal rights, though generally useful, always have the potential to be curtailed. It is because my freedom of speech is merely legal and not universal that I cannot yell “fire!” in a crowded theater. Since my right was given to me by society, when the right may harm society, it can be taken away.

On the other hand, the right to liberty is universal. Therefore, no matter how useful it may be for society, we can never allow for one person to enslave another.

And this gets into the second important difference: it is from the standpoint of human rights that we can critique legal systems, including our own, beyond the bounds of mere utilitarianism.

For I may be able to say that it is bad for another country to only allow cars to go five miles per hour as it decreases production and efficiency, but I cannot say that such a law is categorically wrong just because it is legal for me to drive 65 miles per hour.

I can say that it is categorically wrong for another country to allow for slavery. But notice that this is not an appeal to the American legal system, but to some universal code of ethics.

Now you may be thinking, “Okay, but why does any of this actually matter?”

It matters because it fundamentally changes the way we talk about politics! Take, for instance, one of the largest political controversies in America at this moment: the Affordable Care Act.

We have Democrats arguing for the Affordable Care Act because “health care is a human right,” and we have Republicans opposing it because “the Affordable Care Act hurts people.”

Now, ignoring some of the potential issues with the claims of the Republicans, we must agree that their argument does not matter if the Democrats are right. If health care is a human right, then, no matter the cost, opposing it would be wrong in the same way that slavery, even though outlawing it economically hurt the American south, still needed to be banned.

But let’s think about this for a moment, what does it mean to say that health care is a human right? Does it not mean that, regardless of one’s society or social status, one should have access to the money required to combat the potentially fatal illness with which one is afflicted?

Anyone who truly understands the words “health care is a human right,” will immediately perceive that this is the position. And if this view is correct, then this implies that every instance of someone being afflicted by a disease or sickness without being medically treated is an instance of their rights being violated. If this is true, then the fact that I am not monetarily providing such a treatment to all that I possibly can is a wrong categorically equivalent to murdering the man, woman or child myself.

Maybe there are some who are brave enough to accept this responsibility; I, for one, am not.

I would presume that most of my fellow Americans, Republican or Democrat, share in my cowardice. Thus, it seems to me, that when we talk about health care as a human right, we are actually talking about how the very real suffering involved in not having health care offends our modern sensibilities.

And while I absolutely believe that a world in which everyone has health care would be a better one, that does not make it a human right.

We need to shift our conversations from bickering “rights” versus “utility” to the real question: What systems must be created in order for everyone to have access to health care without harming the rest of society?

And maybe the Affordable Care Act does this. I cannot, at this moment, present such an opinion.

Only when we clear up our language and ask constructive questions can we have hope of progress toward that better world in which anyone, regardless of social standing, is not required to suffer needlessly. For this, I believe, is a goal which unites even the most extreme of our political spectrum.

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