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 current dominant conception of rights that has been embraced globally in documents like the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights originates in the ethical, political, and legal traditions of Europe (particularly, Kantian ethics [discussed above in section 4.3] and social contract theories [mentioned below, section 10.1]), rights discourse has become somewhat detached from these theories. 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 will become evident are the limitations of rights and their 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.
Non-harm or non-violence; a principle that is important in many South Asian traditions