Ethical Judgement and Rights

What gives someone the right to make an ethical judgement? An ethical judgment is how one determines which action to take in any scenario, and on that definition is linked with the action itself. Broadly, ethical judgement can be defined so as to include the decision process as well as the action itself.

It seems to me that this question is somewhat wrongly framed, however – ethical judgments are not something that I have a right to in the same way that I have rights to other goods in my life. In a strict sense then, I don’t have a ‘right’ to make ethical judgement in that ethical judgments are a good to which I have a right. But let us examine some arguments in favor of ethical rights.

One could argue that I have a moral right to make ethical judgement – that an ethical judgement is something I ought to do – but it seems to me that just because I ought  to make an ethical judgement does not give me the right to make such judgements. This doesn’t mean I wouldn’t intervene – only that, strictly speaking, I would not have a right to – I would have an obligation to.

One could argue that I have a legal right to make an ethical judgement – and this seems to me to be a position more solid. If I see someone being mistreated in an illegal way, than I have a legal right to to make an ethical judgement. However, this is a bestowed right – suppose there are laws in other countries different from my own or no laws at all – if this were the case then I would not have such rights to make an ethical judgement, or at least have more limited rights. The bestowing of the rights to ethical judgement by various legal codes seems to be somewhat arbitrary – and as such is not concrete enough to ground a theory of the rights to ethical judgement.

It would seem then that the two strongest contentions of the rights to ethical judgements, the moral and the legal, do not provide sufficent justification for the idea of ethical judgement being a right. Ethical judgments, then, do not seem to be something to which I have a right to make, for two reasons: (a) ethical judgments are not a good to which I have a right, in the same way I have a right to be treated well, and (b) the moral and legal arguments for ethical rights do not seem to provide sufficient justification for such a position. On these two accounts, it appears that ethical judgements are not something I have a right to make.

However, all we have done so far is examine the negative side of the question of ethical rights. The issue it seems to me is that the above arguments are too abstract to provide any concrete ethics – ethical judgments are not things that take place in the abstract but in the concrete, in human existence. Let us then re-frame the question in a non-abstract way that can be directly applied to human existence.

My assertion, then, is that ethical judgement is not something to which I have a right  but something that I have a freedom for, and only insofar as I stand in relation to another person – ethical judgments are something I only have freedom for in relation to another person, because it is only in relation to another person that I have freedom.

‘No man is free “as such,” that is, in a vacuum, in the way that he may be musical, intelligent or blind as such. Freedom is not a quality of man, nor is it an ability, a capacity, a kind of being that somehow flares up in him. Anyone investigating man to discover freedom finds nothing of it. Why? Because freedom is not a quality which can be revealed–it is not a possession, a presence, an object, nor is it a form of existence–but a relationship and nothing else. In truth, freedom is a relationship between two persons. Being free means “being free for the other,” because the other has bound me to him. Only in relationship with the other am I free.’( Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ‘Creation and Fall / Temptation: Two Biblical Studies,’ p. 39-40)

Bonhoeffers ethical thought is grounded in the concrete reality of human existence and relationships as opposed to the abstract of what I ought to do or what I have a right  to do. For Bonhoeffer, ethics are meant to be real concrete and not abstract, because real human existence demands concrete ethics.