Beyond the Ethical Lenses

Some ethical concepts defy easy categorization under one or other of the ethical lenses and in this part, we will consider two such cases—rights and ahimsa. While the idea of rights originates in the ethical, political, and legal traditions of Europe (particularly, Kantian ethics [discussed above in 3.8.3] and social contract theories [mentioned below, 5.14]), rights discourse has become somewhat detached from these theories and embraced globally in documents like the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We will only touch on a few key components of rights discourse but it’s useful to be conversant in these basic concepts as people often end up talking about rights in ethical disputes. What also becomes evident are the limitations of rights as an ethical concept and its dependence on more robust and nuanced ethical theories.

Rather than being somewhat detached from the four ethical lenses, ahimsa touches on all of them. Ahimsa—commonly translated as ‘nonviolence’—originates from the philosophical and religious traditions of south Asia and has been a guiding principle in multiple social justice movements. Avoiding the harmful consequences of violence, criticizing the motives and nature of violent action, cultivating a nonviolent character, and attending to the relationships produced by violence and nonviolence are all central to ahimsa. No one of them is more fundamental or prior to any other. By considering both ahimsa and rights, we can see both the power and the limitations of the ethical lens approach.


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Applied Ethics Primer by Letitia Meynell and Clarisse Paron is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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