Should gays have a right to marry? Should we pass rules to limit abortions after 20 weeks? How do we make decisions about rights, and the rules that secure them?
Some speak rhetorically of their favorite rights, calling them “natural”, or “inherent”, or “God given”. But they usually imply “rights as they are now”. If someone claimed a “God given” right to abort her pregnancy, how could it be proved or disproved? The claim is rhetorical.
When Jesus was asked which rule was the greatest, he said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40).
To rephrase this in humanist terms, “Love good. And love good for others as you love it for yourself. All other rules derive from these two.”
The object of ethics is moral good, for everyone. Moral judgment attempts to weigh the real benefits and harms that will follow if one option is chosen over another. Moral judgment is the only legitimate criteria for judging rules and rights.
Our knowledge is always incomplete. Good and honest people may disagree. The best we can do is gather information, consider different options, make our best estimate of the moral effects, and vote democratically to establish a working rule. Once we have actual experience, we may repeat the process to alter or replace the rule.
Some suggest rights are “fixed” and “eternal”. If that is true, then one must admit that our understanding of this perfect, ideal set of rights is not fixed, but evolving. We were once convinced that owning slaves was a “right”. Perhaps it was defended as “inherent”, “natural”, or “God given” at the time. But it was condemned by moral judgment. The unnecessary harms inflicted upon the persons could not be justified.
Moral judgment offers no simple answers. But it does clarify the question.