A Right Above All Others

By Amitai Etzioni

Why the protection of life should take precedence.

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he demise of democratization as a rationale for United States foreign policy is all too evident. One must now ask which leitmotif will replace it. I suggest the principle of primacy of life as the normative foundation for American foreign policy. At the core of this principle stands the recognition that all people have a right to life, generally understood as a right to be free from deadly violence, maiming, and torture.
The right not to be killed, maimed, or tortured is enumerated in the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence, in which life precedes both liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is reflected in such religious concepts as “we are all God’s children” and in the Jewish notion that he who saves one soul, it is as if he has saved an entire world.
Many tend to view the improvement of security—or the protection of life—as antithetical to individual and civil rights. Critics warn that in the quest for security, a nation may inadvertently become a police state. These are indeed valid concerns; each nation must constantly wrestle with the extent to which the protection of life can be advanced without undermining legal and political rights. Nonetheless, one should not overlook the primacy of the right to life.
This right, in my view, is more fundamental than all others, including legal-political rights. It is a commonly held view that rights should be hierarchically ranked. The most widely accepted distinction is between legal-political rights (such as the rights to vote and to free speech) and socio-economic rights (such as the rights to employment and education). In such a classification, security rights are usually grouped under legal-political rights. Here I depart from standard practice and draw an additional categorical distinction—between security and legal-political rights—in order to show, on both moral and pragmatic grounds, that the provision of basic security is more urgent than that of other rights in chaotic failing states, in dealing with rogue nations, when genocide is committed, and in other violent situations that are common in the international arena.

Amitai Etzioni is director of the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies at George Washington University. This essay is based on his recent book Security First: For a Muscular, Moral Foreign Policy (Yale, 2007).

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