What Are Rights-Based Ethics?

Rights-based ethics is centered around the idea that people possess certain rights merely by virtue of being born human. Examples of rights-based ethics at work include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Geneva Conventions and the United States’ Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights and Constitution.

Natural rights expressed in the Declaration of Independence include the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Other examples of natural rights include the right to a trial by due process of law, the right to work, the right to bear children and the right to freely travel. Some natural rights are violated because they run counter to the interests of another individual or group, such as the right to free education, the right of innocence until proven guilty, the right of an individual to express opinion or share written information freely, the right to be free from torture and the right to be free from slavery.

The opposite of rights-based ethics is utilitarian ethics. Utilitarian ethics is based on creating the most positive outcomes with as few negative outcomes as possible. One example of a utilitarian ethic is utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s maxim, “the greatest good for the greatest number.”