Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Right makes Rights?

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1966, theoretically binds nearly all the nations of the world. Article 12 begins:

1. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.

Chiseled into the facade of the main building of the Harvard School of Public Health, in more than a dozen languages, are the words:
"The highest attainable standard of physical and mental health is the right of every human being."

This is a noble sentiment indeed. It appears to represent the strongest possible statement of humanist ethics.

So what does it mean?

  • How would we define the "highest attainable standard"?
  • What is highest?
  • What is attainable?
  • How would we measure everyone's physical and mental health, and decide that it conformed to the highest attainable standard?
  • What would we do about it if it didn't?
  • And what would a world look like in which this commitment was actually honored and this highest attainable standard achieved?

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