So I'm teaching two sections of medical ethics this semester. And it's pretty interesting, a lively debate where lives are actually potentially on the line makes for more rigorous thinking. And it's much more interesting now that we're done doing things like confidentiality, truth-telling and the like.
See, I thought, sweet, I'll do medical ethics while there's this health care debate raging around us and we'll make the class interesting and topical! And, because I cannot help but be a political philosopher we'll look at issues like race and gender and poverty and medicine. Awesome pants!
So we're starting in on that section, with a general topic of "is health a right?," and I did anticipate there being some disagreement, some healthy and full engagement with the topic. And in one section, I have that.
The other, however.
Interestingly, both classes identified rights as something to which you are entitled. Which is interesting. As is the common desire to think of rights within a purely political nature. Which is also interesting. The difference between the classes is that one class was able to move into a thinking about human rights, outside of political rights, and the other class wasn't.
Really, the only right they could identify, human or political, was the right of self-determination. I had to give this second class the idea that we have a human (or even political) right to not be killed unjustly. I agree that the right of self-determination is an important right, one from which one can redress much injustice. However, the right to not be killed unjustly is a right that is important to be able to say, just like the right to bodily integrity or to be treated equally.
The last two I had people fight me on. Indeed I had people fight me on the right to not be killed unjustly. In fairness, the last they argued against because people are killed unjustly. And other cultures don't recognize it.
And there I am. Standing at a whiteboard. Uncertain as to how to move forward. I had expected disagreement about whether or not there is a right to health, and whether or not if that right did exist one could or should enforce it. I did not expect to have to explain, again, that when doing an ethics class we have to argue from a semi-universal standpoint. That, in fact, it was perfectly ok to make an argument that people have rights.
Interestingly, the most vehement proponents of choice were also the ones that are the most anti-choice. You know. You have the right to choice up until you have the right to choose whether or not to bring a pregnancy to term. Even though we can't think immediately of a right to life.
There is a problem here. A deep one, an unsettling one. It was chilling to face a class of relatively young people who don't think that the right to be treated equally is a human right. It is terrifying to be so confronted by isolation. These kids do not think that they are embedded in community. They don't think that society can have structures that are unjust. They believe they are radically free and are unconstrained or unprivileged by virtue of luck and birth.
I don't know what to do. If they're still relativists, still proto-Randians, what sort of conversation can we have about the intersection of racial and sexual injustice and how they ought to behave in a medical setting? These are nursing students. These are students who will become doctors. And a significant number of them reject empathy. And it's terrifying.