Monday, August 27, 2012

Rights-based Approach to Teaching Ethics

(Conference Paper, Implementing Business Ethics, Ateneo de Manila University, 2012)

The rights-based paradigm can be paired with the capability approach to advance a broader perspective in the teaching of moral philosophy. For students to realize the importance of moral choice in truly democratizing human development, they must have a clear-cut understanding of their most basic or foundational human rights. For instance, the tension between economic growth and climate justice must be seen beyond mere abstraction. The rights-based approach intends to enhance ethical reflection as it links moral issues to crucial aspects of human well-being, enabling students to recognize their indispensable role and stake on important social issues and problems.

Ethics and Human Development

The balance between economic growth and environmental protection is an ideal that policy makers intend to achieve. With the burden of overpopulation lurking in the background, an apparent conflict arises between advancing the economic rights of people against the duty of environmental stewardship. Undeniably, sometimes, it becomes a choice of jobs generation over pollution control. It is in view of this tension that teaching ethics takes a more practical turn as teachers need to consider how to apply abstract ethical theories to address real life concerns. Development ethics, in this regard, can be a potent instrument in promoting moral reflection on important contemporary issues. According to Des Gasper,

“Development ethics can be conceived as a forum for serious reflection on a broader scale than implied in the traditional model of professional ethics: amongst development policy-makers, planners, practitioners and activists, and their major clients, and amongst development studies academics and students” (Gasper 2004, 21).

What is the role of development ethics in today’s world? From a pragmatic end, development has been defined as the expansion of human potentials beyond economic numbers (Sen 1999; Nussbaum 2000; Gasper 2004). It is also worth noting that “emphasis on human development and human rights linkage has come from the growing attention to economic and social rights in addition to civil liberties and political rights, and through theorizing of a strong link from civil and political rights and democracy to sustained economic and social development” (Gasper 2004, 169). Ethical reflection is of prime importance in making people value their basic or foundational human rights. It can be said that the recognition of our basic rights amidst inequalities in society is intrinsically and instrumentally crucial in order to achieve human well-being.

The Rights-based Approach: Human Dignity as Basis of Human Rights

Perspectives on human rights are often considered as euro-centric (Gasper 2004), and as such, they are seen more in terms of legal rights and entitlements. Beauchamp and Childress, in Principles of Biomedical Ethics, define a right as a "justified claim that individuals and groups can make upon other individuals or upon society; to have a right is to be in a position to determine by one's choices, what others should do or need not do". Amartya Sen argues that “it is best to see human rights as a set of ethical claims, which must not be identified with legislated legal rights” (Sen 1999, 229). Human rights, in this regard, must be approached from the vantage point of a universal concept of human dignity.

From a religious point of view, the idea of human dignity is derived from the notion of the human being as a creature of God. Since God is good, each human being is endowed with an inviolable value. From a secular point of view, human dignity is linked to the idea of human rights. Since man is free, to subjugate human freedom is to violate man’s basic humanity or autonomous nature. The basic point here is that respect for human dignity, indeed, should be the normative basis for equal treatment and just outcomes on various aspects of human life.

In view of this, Sen notes of three critiques on the thick concept of rights. The first comes from the notion of legitimacy. The idea that natural rights are unreal unless legislated seems to suggest that persons cannot make moral demands upon others on the basis of their dignity. Imagine for instance, if rights do not exist. The second argument rests on the uselessness of rights unless they are met. Rights must correspond to some perfect or imperfect obligation. Sen argues that rights are moral demands or entitlements, and their coherence does not depend on legislated obligation. The third critique comes from culture. Asian culture is seen as authoritarian, with less emphasis on freedom. But Sen points out to Buddhism as one that promotes freedom above all else. Ergo, freedom is not a monopoly of the West. Eastern societies can learn from the West, the West on the other hand, through inter-dependence, can assimilate values from Confucianism.

Gasper opines that “international human rights doctrine and international law have emerged over centuries and even millennia through the interaction and conflicts between imperial states and conquered peoples as well as from a dawning recognition of some shared principles and a single humanity” (Gasper 2004, 169). Free access to resources and economic opportunities has to be seen as basic entitlements of persons precisely as persons endowed with human dignity. In this regard, the rights-based approach considers the person through a thick concept of the good, one who deserves a life worthy of his or her dignity. Martha Nussbaum writes, in view of this thick concept of the good, that “whatever differences we encounter, we are rarely in doubt as to when we are dealing with a human being and when we are not. The essentialist account attempts to describe the bases for these recognitions; by mapping out the general shape of the human form of life, those features that constitute a life as human whatever it is” (Nussbaum 2006, 215). We argue, thus, that some basic freedoms are crucial in the universal conception of our humanity. David Held, for instance, in Democracy and the Global Order, lists rights to medical care, education, child care, and minimum income (See Held 1995, 192-198).

History is a witness to the exploitation of the poor and the disadvantaged. The legacy of our colonial past, for example, indicates how people have been reduced to mere instruments for the advancement of imperial interests. Globally, Joseph Stiglitz mentions how policies of the International Monetary Fund in the past and in particular, premature capital market liberalization or structural adjustment programs, have contributed to global instability (Stiglitz 2002, 15). In this regard, human poverty is not only a result of failed local economic and social policies. Trade barriers, international debts, and interventionist programs on fiscal and political reform often result to the sacrifice of human lives. This type of economic imperialism, the hegemony of the north over the south, of the west over the east, both culturally and economically, presuppose a moral imperative of recognizing the concept of human dignity as crucial in promoting the value of human rights. We can point out here the importance of voicing out dissent in order to secure our freedom from abusive regimes and oligarchic systems. However, it is also worth noting that there cannot be human development without the advancement of human knowledge. To really empower people, they have to be armed not only with political resolve but with the intelligence that can propel science and advance technology for their greater benefit.

The Rights-based Approach, in short, considers human dignity as the basic grounding principle for human rights. It is a perspective that puts emphasis on the humanity of each person, acknowledging that certain aspects of our social and political existence are important in a life that is fully human (Sen 1999; Nussbaum 2000; Maboloc 2007). The approach also addresses concerns of political legitimacy. Since democratic processes legitimize moral claims on our basic freedoms, insights on political and social rights enable people to evaluate if the decision-making procedures used by their leaders do not violate their person. David Held writes, for instance, that our rights represent fundamental enabling conditions for political participation and therefore, for legitimate rule (Held 1995, 199).

Pedagogically, understanding the concept of positive rights will empower students in articulating for themselves the meaning and role of political participation. In order to make some impact in the lives of students, teachers as ethicists have to inculcate in the minds of the young that moral choice is crucial and that having the proper perspective matters in making us responsible individuals. The emphasis here, however, should not be on the ability to elaborate on one’s negative rights or what is called freedom from non-interference, but rather, focus should be on people empowerment or the promotion of positive freedoms, or what Sen deems as human capabilities. Sen defines capabilities as the “freedom to do and be”. Human capabilities are linked to core functionings or the achievement of certain social goods, seen as vital to the opportunity to enjoy a fully human life (See Sen 1999; Nussbaum 2000; Gasper 2004; Maboloc 2008).

Economic Justice and Climate Change/Justice

Climate change is acknowledged as a real threat to humanity. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2007 Report, between 1906 and 2005, average temperatures rose worldwide by 0.74 degrees Celsius. This trend has been accelerated drastically over the last 50 years. It is feared that if temperatures continue to rise there may be negative, even disastrous consequences not only for ecosystems and water systems, but also for human health, agriculture, forestry, industry and society as a whole (See Caro and Ruth 2011, 20). It is in this context that discussions pertaining to climate justice have been propounded very recently. Climate justice is intertwined in the tension between economic growth and environmental protection. We can cite here, for instance, the refusal of the United States to sign the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 for economic reasons. One reason, it is argued, is that the agreement will result to an economic loss of 150 billion dollars for developed countries (See Singer 2002, 24). Still, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol has up till now been the most important instrument of international climate policy. By signing the Protocol, the developed countries have pledged to reduce their collective greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2 per cent compared to the 1990 level between 2008 and 2012 (Ibid., 21).

But the need to mitigate the impact of climate change has been made manifest by its effects on poor developing countries that do not have the resources to contain them (Wesley and Peterson 1999; Singer 2002; Maboloc 2010). The argument is based on the idea of inter-generational justice. Grounded in the notion of stewardship, the present generation is seen as one that possesses the moral obligation to protect the environment for the sake of future generations. The basis of this obligation is the moral claim that we owe the world we inhabit today to the past. We therefore have the moral duty to hand over a habitable planet to our children.

Developing countries like China and India cannot be faulted for having argued that they must not be subjected to carbon limits because Western societies should be responsible on what is called “historic pollution”. Thus, developed economies should pay for past carbon emissions. The rights of developing countries to benefit from economic expansion must not be curtailed by climate policy. Carbon limits, following this point, should not be an obstacle to economic growth in developing countries (See Caro and Ruth 2011, 26).

Without power from coal or gas-fired plants, some policy makers say that there cannot be economic growth. Without economic growth, jobs cannot be created. Without jobs, one cannot speak of human development. Civil society groups fear that the coal-fired power plants are destructive to the natural ecosystem. The impact on the environment, it is argued, compromises public well-being and human health, and as such, alternatives must be pursued. But proponents often argue that capital investment in coal is cheaper compared, for instance, to wind energy which is thrice its cost. Mindanao’s capacity to produce energy from hydro sources has also been optimized. Coal, thus, is seen as the logical choice. This contention is important since cheaper power rate is an incentive for investors, considering that power cost in the country is prohibitively expensive, driving potential investors to other countries with cheaper power rates.

Role of Ethics/Teaching Ethics

How should people, and students, in particular, debate on the matter above? Arguing from the point of view of positive rights can be a useful tool in teaching the ethical aspect of the debate. On one hand, in understanding the issue above, we recognize the need for sustainable development for without it, whatever economic gains earned from the project will be wasted as the overall cost of addressing the pollution and the ensuing health problems arising from such will surely be a big burden for the local government and its finances. On the other hand, we also recognize the rights of people to economic well-being, to jobs and stable incomes, to their means of livelihood and overall, to a higher standard of living.

The Rights-based Approach puts moral reflection on a higher gear as issues are assessed beyond mere politics and cold science. Students are to benefit from this type of argumentation as they will understand their economic rights as moral rights and will begin to realize the value of evaluating from a moral end the benefits and disadvantages of their choices. Discussions on the above matter inside the classroom need to be given some clear-cut perspective in order to advance the value of ethical reflection. The Rights-based Approach emphasizes the importance of understanding basic rights as a perspective in deliberating moral issues. Students usually see moral issues as abstractions. They do not find the link between moral theories and real life concerns. In the issue of climate change, for instance, students need to realize that their future is at stake. They must see that political participation is instrumental in the achievement of some moral ends.


In conclusion, it is without argument that economic development must be harmonized with environmental protection. Democratic processes are seen as instrumental in order to achieve such objective. Democratizing development must include not only respect for procedures but the recognition of basic freedoms. But this has become an almost insurmountable ideal as local policy-makers realize the huge problem of human poverty and the great challenge of realizing jobs for an impoverished nation.

The practical value of development ethics lies in its capacity to enhance moral awareness as it links moral issues to crucial aspects of human well-being. The choices that our leaders make, students are made to understand, have a strong impact in society and in their lives. If we intend our students to understand the value of moral responsibility, then they have to recognize their indispensable role and huge stake on important social issues and concerns.