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The Universal Nature of Ethical Principles

For every ethical issue, there are ethical concepts and principles to be identified and used in thinking through the issue. Included in the principles implied by these concepts are the rights articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This set of rights, established on December 10, 1948, by the General Assembly of the United Nations, holds that the:

…recognition of inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world …. Disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people.

The Universal Declaration of Humans Rights was conceived as "a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations." It is a good example of an explicit statement of important ethical principles. It is significant, we believe, that every nation on earth has signed the declaration.

Here are a few of the principles laid out in the 30 articles of the declaration:

  • All humans are born free and equal in dignity and rights.

  • Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person.

  • No one shall be held in slavery or servitude.

  • No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.

  • Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family.

  • Everyone has the right to education.

  • Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

  • Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this declaration, without distinction of any kinds, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or status.

  • All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law.

One ability essential to sound reasoning is the ability to identify ethical principles relevant to the issue at hand. In Test the Idea 12.2, you should think through the identification and application of some of these principles with respect to a specific ethical question.

Test the Idea
Recognizing Violations of Human Rights Based Universal Ethical Principles

In this activity, we will briefly describe an issue as presented in a New York Times article, "Iraq Is a Pediatrician's Hell: No Way to Stop the Dying." We then will ask you to identify any violations of human rights suggested by the manner in which events are characterized.

This article focuses on the medical problems for sick children in Iraq "when the country's medical system is all but paralyzed as a result of economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations eight years ago." The article states that hospitals cannot obtain the medical equipment and supplies they need to handle diseases from the complicated to the "easily curable ailments." This means that virtually all children with leukemia, for example, die in Iraq. The article mentions a three-year-old girl with leukemia, Isra Ahmed, who bleeds profusely from her nose, gums, and rectum. The hospital's chief resident, Dr. Jasim Mazin, says that the hospital lacks the equipment to perform the kind of operation she needs. He states, "We're helpless." He goes on to say, "Iraq used to be the best country in the Arab world in terms of science and medicine. Now we can't even read medical journals because they are covered by the embargo." Dr. Mazin said his worst period came in April 1998 when he lost 75 children to chest infections and gastroenteritis. He believes all of them could have been saved with antibiotics commonly available in neighboring countries. Assume for this exercise that the factual claims in this article are accurate.

Complete the following statements:

  1. If the United Nations sanctions are responsible for the conditions discussed in this article, the following human rights have been violated by the United Nations…

  2. If you believe one or more violations of human rights exist in this situation, complete the following statements:
    • The universal ethical principle violated was…

    • For this ethical principle to be honored, the following action would have been called for in this situation…

Though the principles outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are universally accepted in theory, even democratic countries do not necessarily live in accordance with them. For example, on October 5, 1998, the New York Times ("Amnesty Finds 'Widespread Pattern' of U.S. Rights Violations," p. A11) reported that Amnesty International was citing the United States for violating fundamental human rights. The Amnesty International report stated that "police forces and criminal and legal systems have a persistent and widespread pattern of human rights violations."

In the report, Amnesty International protested the U.S. failure "to deliver the fundamental promise of rights for all." The report states, "Across the country thousands of people are subjected to sustained and deliberate brutality at the hands of police officers. Cruel, degrading, and sometimes life-threatening methods of constraint continue to be a feature of the U.S. criminal justice system."

Pierre Sane, Secretary General of Amnesty International for six years, said, "We felt it was ironic that the most powerful country in the world uses international human rights laws to criticize others but does not apply the same standards at home."

Every country agrees in theory to the importance of fundamental human rights. In practice, though, they often fail to uphold those rights.

Test the Idea
Identifying Violations of Human Rights Based on Universal Ethical Principles

Identify a newspaper article that either directly or indirectly implies at least one governmental violation of human rights. Complete the following statements:

  1. The main substance of this article is…

  2. The reason this article suggests to me at least one governmental violation of human rights is…

  3. The universal ethical principle(s) violated is/are…

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