As a simple intellectual exercise, I’d like to quibble about semantics. Just in case your ears didn’t perk when Barrack Obama said the above statement in a previous presidential debate, I wanted to draw attention to a fundamental understanding of what a “right” is. No matter where we stand on the political side of things, I think this is a question worth asking and answering, from a philosophical viewpoint. When asked if healthcare was a right, Obama responded, “Well, I think it should be a right for every American.” So the question for me is, “Should healthcare be a right?” Or, “Is it already a right?” The questions are entirely different. If he had said “Healthcare is a right” instead of “Healthcare should be a right,” I might disagree in the end, but wouldn’t be as perturbed.
The problem is the word, “should.” For a politician to use this word in this context is alarming, as it suggests rights are granted by those very politicians, not by a higher authority. The word “should” implies something needs to change, a sentiment which shouldn’t surprise anyone following these campaigns. For example, if a father says, “Son, you should clean your room,” this implies that the room isn’t clean now, and that needs to change. Furthermore, it implies someone has the power to change it, presumably the son, but the father if worse comes to worse.
If I were to apply this to Obama’s quote, “Healthcare should be a right,” that implies that healthcare is currently not a right, but in the future, well, it should be. So are rights fluid, and can our understanding of them change? I’m not so sure. Isn’t this is a misreading of what rights even are? A right either is, or isn’t. Rights are an existential question, not a political one. Rights are, and must be, understood to be granted by a higher authority than man, usually God, but perhaps Natural Law or the “common good” can be substituted. If rights don’t come from a higher authority, then they lose the one thing that makes them truly a right: protection from man, the ability to claim it over and above someone else’s competing claim.
If anything, government interferes with man’s inalienable rights more often than not. (Hence the Bill of Rights, restrictions on what government does to protect human rights.) Government didn’t end slavery by extending the right to freedom; government perpetuated slavery for centuries by legalizing it. Government didn’t give women the right to vote; government withheld that right for centuries, only later recognizing its error and changing course. Rights either “are” or they “are not”. But they never “should be”.
The truly stunning decades of the late 1700s found man discovering that rights were inherent to the dignity of man himself, that they were not granted by a monarch or even a parliament, no matter how popular. If rights were conveyed by government, they could just as easily be taken away by that same government. Historically, the rights to press, religion and free speech, were not thought of as inalienable. But that thinking was changed; certain rights came to be seen as inalienable, as true to humanity as the air we breathe. This was a remarkable achievement for mankind, one thousands of years in the making.
So back to the quote and why it is an impossible statement, a paradox of language: if healthcare should be a right, then something needs to change and someone needs to change it. Someone needs to assign this right, and as soon as possible. But if someone can do that, it’s not really a right, but a privilege in every sense of the word. If Obama had said that healthcare is a right, he would have every moral imperative (even if I and others heartily disagreed with his logic) to fundamentally altar the way our healthcare system is run.
But the fact that he said it “should” be a right is quite alarming, and I think a gift, an insight into the way that he understand, or doesn’t understand, the role of government. Rights simply “are” or “are not”, because true rights are absolute claims that any human can make against any other. If rights are granted by those in power, they are not absolute, but instead are negligible, and by definition, are no longer a right, but a privilege. If a right “should be” now, it’s only a matter of time before someone decides it “shouldn’t be”.