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Prosperity and rights, but no morals

By Mirko Bagaric - posted Tuesday, 30 May 2006

Ignoring the cries of others – it wouldn’t happen if we had regard to the common good.

In recent weeks, we have witnessed some remarkable acts of indifference to the plight of others. This disappointing trend will continue until the concept of the common good replaces the notion of individual rights as the basic moral currency.

Double amputee Mark Inglis was given a hero’s welcome in New Zealand last week for his remarkable accomplishment in climbing Everest. His heroic exploits are being undermined by revelations that he and his team of climbers came across British climber David Sharp who was near death. Inglis tried to help Sharp, but felt there was little he could do and continued his trek. Sharp later died.


This drew criticisms from some quarters, including Sir Edmund Hillary who accused Inglis and his team of not doing everything reasonably possible to save Inglis. Hillary is right.

Unfortunately this is not a one off incident. Last week eight Melburnians ignored what police described as the blood curdling screams of Juan Zhang as she was attacked outside her workplace. Her body was found in the boot of her car several days later. None of the eight witnesses bothered to even make a free 000 call to police. Several days ago, Australian climber Lincoln Hall was abandoned on Everest’s “death zone” by his Sherpa guides who believed he was gone beyond hope, only to spring to life less than a day later.

Remarkably the jury of public opinion is still out on the propriety of such conduct. This shows the depths to which our collective moral psyche has sunk - we are camped near the base of the moral mountain.

The big question remains how can this be? How can it even be an issue that the highest order moral imperative is to save human life?

Much of the answer rests with the distorted individualist moral code that pervades our collective thinking. Over the past 60 years there has been a slow but unmistakable change in the manner in which we approach moral issues. Our personal morality is central to our conduct because it impacts, often subconsciously, on all of the important decisions we make in our daily lives. You don’t need to be a philosopher to recognise the fundamental shift.

We are now wired in a way that the standard currency for dealing with moral issues is that of “rights”. Rights claims emerged in response the atrocities during World War II as counter-ideologies to combat tyrannical regimes.


From humble origins where it was proclaimed that all people have the right to life, liberty and property we have come to gorge on rights and all sorts of dubious claims are now dressed up in rights language.

Not too long ago, it was claimed that “each child has the right to a mother and father”. In a similar vein, Greek soccer supporters, frustrated by the fact that coverage of the European Soccer Cup was only available on pay TV, were asserting a right to “watch their team on free TV”. We can’t blame too much Ouzo for that one. More likely they were fuelled by Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Rights which claims we have a right to “rest and leisure”.

It’s easy to invent rights claims because rights are intellectual nonsense. No one has yet been able to provide tenable answers to questions such as: Where do rights come from? How can we distinguish real from fanciful rights? This allows people to make up rights as they “go along”.

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About the Author

Mirko Bagaric, BA LLB(Hons) LLM PhD (Monash), is a Croatian born Australian based author and lawyer who writes on law and moral and political philosophy. He is dean of law at Swinburne University and author of Australian Human Rights Law.

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