Human Rights & Moral Duties: Definition & Relationship

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  • 00:00 Doing What's Right
  • 00:47 Rights and Duties
  • 2:44 Relationship between…
  • 5:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The world of ethics can be difficult to navigate. What are rights? What are duties? Do each affect you the same? Explore these ideas and test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Doing What's Right

We all want to do what's right. At least, I hope so. I mean, I'm sure there are some potential super villains out there, but in general, we try and do the right thing. Find a stray dog? Call its owner. Hit someone's car? Give them your insurance information. Get caught driving solo in the carpool lane? Ok, that's a little morally gray. I mean, come on, have you seen rush hour traffic? The carpool lane is just wide open and really it's just because I'm late to something really important so really it would be more immoral not to take it…

Okay, I'm getting off topic. The point is that morals and ethics are important parts of our lives and societies, but doing the right thing isn't always as simple as it sounds. Luckily for us, there are a few guidelines to help us out.

Rights and Duties

The question of ethics is one that has been debated for a while and is often tied into the rights, or the guaranteed freedoms and expectations, of a group. After the genocide of WWII, the international peace-keeping organization called the United Nations decided that the world needed a standard definition of human rights, or the rights guaranteed to all people regardless of any other factors. And so, the UN drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 to define the human rights that every nation is expected to uphold.

This is a great starting place if you're trying to figure out what is right and wrong. The Universal Declaration has been upheld time and time again as the international standard of morality. A government that denies these basic rights is immoral; a government that respects these rights is moral, at least in that sense. Honestly, being moral comes with many more requirements than being immoral.

Rights are the things to which we feel entitled. We are owed certain rights, and these range from political rights to human rights to various other rights that often interact. Rights are the freedoms we expect, but our morals are based in more than just this.

Another guiding principle is moral duty, the obligation to act based on ethical beliefs. One of the most common examples is this: you're walking along and you see a small child fall into a well. I know there aren't many wells around anymore, but that's just what happens, okay? Do you feel a moral obligation to act? Of course you do! Since we value human life, especially that of a child, then you have a moral duty to act and try to help get this kid out of the well.

Relationship Between Rights and Duties

So there are rights we all expect and there are moral duties we all have. But what's the exact relationship between these? Well, it really comes down to this question: if you recognize a right, do you have a duty to uphold it?

Let's put it this way. If you agree with the UN that everyone has the right to a fair trial, but then you hear about somebody whose trial is biased, do you have a duty to act? You know it's wrong, but this is still a difficult question because it may involve personal risk. That's where this becomes very tricky and many people have different viewpoints.

Monks from almost any spiritual background, for example, tend to believe that their moral duty extends beyond personal risk, regardless of the situation. Our legal system, on the other hand, is set up to forgive a person who did not act on a moral duty because of personal risk. So there is a fair amount of disagreement here.

The relationship between moral duty and rights can be applied to individuals, but it can also be applied to much larger institutions, from private companies to entire governments. Since larger institutions tend to have more direct power, the expectation that they will act on moral duties is greater.

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