Defining “Rights”

I liked this very succinct argument about why health care is not a right.

With one exception, the right to representation in court and a trial by jury, {the rights safeguarded in our Constitution} require nothing of any other citizen but that they recognize your rights and not interfere with them.

Your “right to health care” would require some other person to give up a portion of their life or their property to either treat you or to provide you with drugs or medical implements. The Constitution does not provide for another individual to be indentured to you in this manner.

Therefore, you have no “right” to health care.

What I really like is that this argument provides a plausible framework for distinguishing between fundamental rights and the manufactured “rights” that make for such good campaign promises. Does anyone else have any perspective on this argument (in general or specific to health care)?

About David

David is the father of 8 extremely organized children (4 girls / 4 boys) who is constantly seeking answers to tough questions related to parenting, education and politics while moonlighting for 40 hours each week as a technology professional. He also enjoys cooking, gardening, and sports.

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7 Responses to Defining “Rights”

  1. I have a few thoughts:

    1) While I agree that our constitutional rights can be expressed only insofar as they don’t interfere with you rights. The writing in these rights actually protects us from the government. I don’t think this defeats the argument and the same conclusion, I believe, can be reached.

    2) This argument, however, in suggesting that we don’t have a “right” to health care appear to derive an ought from an is. It is the case that there is no right as defined in the constitution, however, that does not necessitate that concepts of justice do not suggest it ought to be that way.

    3) I am unsure about the practical validity of this concept of indenturing a fellow citizen. If that was how this country actually acted there would be no income tax and no tax breaks. E.g. when a corporation is given a tax break you and I must contribute the difference and support their bottom line even if we don’t support that corp. It seems to me, at least on the surface, that Universal health care that would provide equal converge and access to services would be more just than other uses of tax dollars that only benefit a few citizens or even organizational entities.

  2. Another thought:

    While the Constitution does not guarantee certain rights, such as health care or marriage or child bearing, they can be considered rights via international obligation. In the case of health care, it is listed as a right by the UN. Which, disregarding what one might think about the UN, international treaties have the force of law in the Constitution.

    According to Article VI: “This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.”

    Article 25 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including…medical care and necessary social services…”

    So while the US Constitution does not specifically declare health care to be a rights and from the nature of the rights it does suggest there can be no such right, the powers of the President to enter into, and congress to ratify treaties, it could be argued leads to such a right.

  3. David says:


    Thank you for those insightful comments.

    It is true that the rights listed in the Constitution were designed most specifically to protect citizens from the government. As you say, that logical flaw does not negate the conclusion.

    It is also true that there is a difference between ought and is. Just because there is no right to something written in the Constitution does not prove that the right ought not to be there. On the other hand – the first time you read (actually read, not simply glance at before signing) a legal document it becomes painfully clear that ought has little place in the worlds of law or business. “Is” is supreme in those professions. If something ought to be then it must be brought into being through the existing mechanisms.

    You conclusions in point 3 are logically correct extensions of the original argument. Many, including myself would argue that there should be no income tax – a tax which was specifically illegal in our original constitution – and no tax breaks whereby citizens are left supporting institutions and programs which they might be unwilling to freely support. You are also correct that universal health care might be more just than such corporate welfare, especially if it actually does provide equal access and coverage for all citizens.

    The statement in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights is too vague to unequivocally say that any of the prominent proposals for universal health care are simply implementations of legal rights. It could easily be argued that that right simply stipulates that doctors and medical facilities cannot discriminate against those who seek their help when they need medical attention – we already have laws in place whereby medical personnel cannot refuse care to people who are in need regardless of their ability to pay (let alone race, gender, national origin or any of the other standard legal excuses for discrimination). First we must do more to define what the “right” to health care is before we can launch in to the problem of how to guarantee that right.

  4. >define what the “right” to health care is before we can launch in to the problem of how to guarantee that right.

    The right to health care consists wholly in the right to exchange voluntarily something I have that is valued by a care giver, for the health care that that care giver voluntarily provides to me on condition of reception of the “value” that I promise to deliver. The same framework applies to the “right” to a job, the “right” to an education, or the “right” to any time, services, or goods owned or provided by another person.

  5. David says:

    In other words, all those “rights” are really just examples of our right to engage in commerce to use/dispose of our property as we see fit.

  6. Ray says:

    I think a right to health care can be derived outside of an economic framework and I would think it be necessary because economic rights are rights that can easily be limited.

    (1) health care givers have a positive duty to care for those in need.
    (2) this duty is derived from inherent human dignity: i.e. it is right to help a person not to suffer.
    (3) it is illogical to say that inherent human dignity in giving health care givers a positive duty to help would not rest on the right of an individual to obtain health care.

    Therefore, the right to health care is the inverse of a health care givers duty to help.

  7. David says:

    I don’t buy that logic. It is right that a health care giver should care for someone in need regardless of their ability to pay for the care, but it is an infringement on the rights of the caregiver to force them to give care for which they will not be compensated. Similarly, it is an infringement on others to force them to pay for care that would otherwise be uncompensated.

    Your second point clearly confuses a moral duty with a legal duty. Morally it would be a duty for one person to help another person not to suffer (assuming they have the power to do so) but legally we cannot require that. To say that we can require someone to act in a noble or virtuous manner is to say that they are not free to choose to act in a less noble way. We can’t do that or else we would be giving tickets to every motorist who did not stop to help someone on the side of the road with a flat tire.

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