On the Right to Life
October 13,2020   By:CSHRS
On the Right to Life
ZHANG Yonghe *
Abstract: The COVID-19 pandemic is not only the first public health emergency that human beings are jointly faced with, but also the first time that mankind is confronted with a tremendous disaster together. To face lives rationally in a pandemic, “criteria” and “rules” need to be regulated by reason. Amid such a catastrophe, we need to reply to questions such as whether the right to life should take precedence over other rights and whether each individual’s life should be treated equally, the answers to which, of course, are definitely positive. With the advent of a risk society, public health emergencies are no longer occasional incidents. Instead, they might become a more frequent problem in the development of modernity. In the community with a shared future for human beings, to protect human rights, the humanitarian spirit, the principle of equality and the idea of justice by playing the role of the state will become a new normal in safeguarding the right to life.

Keywords: right to life  · principle of equality  · humanitarian spirit  · state justice  · community with a shared future for human beings

The COVID-19 pandemic is a global catastrophe affecting the whole world. It has already claimed many lives, and more lives will be lost and human society will suffer inconceivable losses if we fail to effectively contain the pandemic. In the face of this worldwide public health emergency, saving lives should be the top priority. Theoretically, it is easy to reach such a consensus because human beings are supposed to have “rationality and consciousness.” In reality, however, we must be steadfast to the proposition on how people view the meaning of their lives as “human beings” if we intend to properly understand life, especially the lives of “others” so as to figure out the way to save lives. This is also the essential meaning pursued by humankind as “authentic existence.”

I. On a Rational Attitude toward Life

People around the world have pondered the importance of life over the ages. The chapter “Ultimate Oath” (First Half) in the Book of History that was compiled in the 5 th century B.C. in China proposed the idea that “mankind is the wisest of all creatures.” Given that the Book of History was based on the early literary classics “Three Graves and Five Classics” 1 , that means such an idea was already formed prior to the 5 th century B.C. Perhaps that was the Chinese nation’s earliest recorded thinking about human life. Why did the ancient Chinese conclude that “mankind is the wisest of all creatures”? This conclusion reflects how they positioned humankind in the world after deliberation over the universe and their personal experience in nature. Thus, they concluded that mankind is superior to all other living creatures, highlighting their “predominant position” in the world. In the chapter “Miscellanies” of Shuo yuan (“The Garden of Stories”), a historical story collection by Liu Xiang of the Western Han Dynasty (202 B.C.-A.D. 8), the idea was rephrased as “of all creatures in nature, mankind is the most dignified,” which perfectly supplemented the saying that “mankind is the wisest of all creatures.” Also in the 5 th century B.C., ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras stated his understanding of human beings from another perspective. He said that “of all things the measure is Man.” The perspective of this statement seems different from that of the Chinese saying that “mankind is the wisest of all creatures.” Protagoras’ notion that man is the measure for all things indicates all things in the world is centered around human beings, and mankind is the initial point to understand the world. He believed that all things in the world must be subject to the “measure” and made mankind the benchmark. Without human beings, the world would have been chaotic and disordered. Therefore, “Man” becomes the ultimate meaning that the world exists. In this sense, the philosophical proposition of the Axial Age 2 answered the question about the “noumenon” of mankind. During the Renaissance, Shakespeare asserted in Hamlet that “man is the noblest of all God’s pieces of work, the quintessence of dust.” This statement conforms to the Chinese notion of “mankind.” In fact, in that anti-divinity period that upheld the banner of humanism (Greek etymons: antropos and logos, meaning “human” and “theory”), the notion that “mankind is the wisest of all creatures” actually implied the “noumenon” of human beings. I don’t want to discuss which of the two propositions is better here- into, but one thing is certain: the origins of both sayings verified the rationality of humans in the universe.

In modern times, human beings have obtained a new understanding of themselves. Human rights have become “the lingua franca of the global moral discourse” 3 in modern society, and a discourse system to interpret all kinds of rights including the right to life with human rights theories has been formed. However, different nations and states may vary in their understanding of the connotations of human rights due to their different history, culture and development phases. 4 Behind any notion is a complete theory. Similarly, the notion of life involves two cognitive systems: one is metaphysical and the other is physical. In the metaphysical system, life exists in the framework of logical derivation, and its ultimate origin is an existing being that is independent of human will. This kind of logical derivation is meaningful as knowledge. However, people’s lives cannot be simply confined to logical derivation; they must be restored to every individual in reality.

That is to say, we must maintain a down-to-earth approach to understand life. Only in this way can we really observe the existence of life. In this case, the practicality of life becomes the most important system for us to observe life, namely, the second system. In the system, life is an embodiment of human beings, while human beings are carriers of life. So, can we say that the former provides the “criteria” as logical knowledge and the latter provides the “rules” in the form of practice? Herein the rules refer to the code of conduct that human beings must abide by in specific activities. Are the “criteria” in the form of logical knowledge and the “rules” in the form of practice two parallel lines that never intersect? The answer is negative. The two, in fact, intersect with each other, and there is definitely a common denominator between them. This is because without “criteria,” the “rules” may cause disasters for mankind, and without “rules,” the “criteria” are nothing but logical games. Therefore, the “criteria” and “rules” seem to be two non-intersecting parallel lines, but in fact they are commensurable. The common denominator, namely rationality, dominates both “criteria” and “rules.” For the “rules,” “rationality” represents the quintessence of all things in the universe. It is ubiquitous but invisible. For the “criteria,” “rationality” is the language to convey the quintessence. The “criteria” cannot turn into “rules” unless they are tested by practice and then converted into behaviors that are subjective or dominated by “rationality.” Meanwhile, such behaviors must conform to relevant “criteria.” Therefore, the “criteria” in conformity with relevant “rules” and the “rules” reflecting relevant “criteria” are both results of rationality.

If we place the aforesaid derivation in the global fight against the COVID-19 pandemic concerning how humankind should face up with death in the time of disaster, the question about how people view the “criteria” and “rules” of life will emerge. In the face of “criteria,” every life has meaning. This is the essential stipulation of the “criteria.” From the perspective of “rules,” life has varied meanings and values. Should we pull every person from the jaws of death? Does every life have equal meaning and value? How to save every life on the brink of death? Who will save lives from death? Those questions are actually about why we call ourselves humans and the meaning of humanism. All of these require us to make resolute decisions in the face of the pandemic. However, the decisions must be made under the guidance of rationality, so that “criteria” and “rules” can be in conformity.

It is ideal if the attitude we take toward life is based on the conformity between “criteria” and “rules,” but the reality is usually not the case. In reality, we often cannot
properly deal with the relationship between the two because in most times we under-
stand life from a personal perspective, instead of the “human” dimension we should
cherish the life of every individual, which is the bottom line of humanism. If we fail to
keep this bottom line, we cannot call ourselves humans. If humankind as a collective
face the question of the value of life, it is related to human ethics in the order of the
universe. In this case, we need more guidance on “rationality.”

II. On the Superiority of the Right to Life over Other Rights

We can discuss the meaning of life from various perspectives, and philosophy is an ideal perspective to discuss all kinds of questions. However, philosophy always seems to tell us the true meaning of life in an ambiguous way, and it makes us confused in the face of realities. What makes us human lies in the fact that we can have rational cognition of life from the perspective of humanism. In this case, humans refer to humankind, instead of individuals. The subjects of observation for this cognition, however, are breathing individuals. Therefore, the rational outlook on life is an attitude towards life that conforms to both “criteria” and “rules.” Only when we place an extremely abstract concept in real life can it become vivid and easy to understand. For instance, we usually talk about life from the perspective of individuals. Life appears particularly vivid because every individual is special. For the reason, however, this results in different understanding of life. “Life is in fact meaningless,” “Live free or die,” “Better a living dog than a dead lion”. All of these reflect different individuals’ understanding of life. Of course, these are merely individual experiences and cannot be commensurable to “criteria” through “rationality.” The reason is that those individual experiences are not common experiences of the whole of mankind, so they thus have no universal necessity and cannot form a universal code of conduct.

Why did we implement quarantines and lockdowns to prevent and control the spread of the novel coronavirus? Are there any better measures? To what should we give priority in the battle against the epidemic? What could we do before we knew this virus and lacked scientific knowledge about virus prevention? What rights should be equally protected as the right to life? emergency response Law of the people’s republic of China (2007), Law of the people’s republic of China on prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases (2013) and other relevant laws all focus on safeguarding human life and health. It is the primary responsibility for the government to take rational prevention and control measures to block infection sources and safeguard people’s lives and health. For instance, Article 4 of the regulations of the people’s republic of China on public Health emergencies (hereinafter referred to as the Regulations) stipulates that “after the occurrence of relevant emergencies, the people’s governments of relevant provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities shall set up a local emergency response headquarters, headed by the principal leaders of relevant provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities, to oversee and command the handling of emergencies in their respective administrative region.” According to this stipulation, the municipal government of Wuhan established the Wuhan COVID-19 Epidemic Prevention and Control Headquarter and issued a notice on January 23, 2020: “All local buses, subways, ferries and long-distance buses suspend operations, residents are not allowed to leave the city without specific reasons, and the airport and railway stations are temporarily closed.” The city went into a lockdown. The lockdown resulted in the derogation of a series of civil rights. Article 40 of the Regulations stipulates that “amid the outbreak of infectious diseases, sub-districts, townships, residents’ committees and villagers’ committees shall organize forces to take concerted action to prevent and control the epidemic and assist public health administrative authorizes and other relevant government departments, and healthcare institutions in collecting and reporting information about the epidemic, reducing crowds and quarantining suspected cases, and implementing public health measures, and publicize knowledge about epidemic prevention and control among residents and villagers.” Article 41 of the Regulations stipulates that “the local governments at the county level or above shall take proper measures to prevent and control the epidemic and implement relevant restrictive measure for the sake of public health amidst the migrant population in areas where the virus occurs and spreads; Infected patients and suspected cases shall be quarantined and put under medical observation and treatment in situ, and those who need to be treated and transferred shall be subject to Item 1 of Article 39 of the Regulations.” Obviously, the measures such as “assisting public health administrative authorize and other relevant government departments, and healthcare institutions in collecting and reporting information about the epidemic, reducing crowds and quarantining suspected cases” and the stipulations such as “infected patients and suspected cases shall be quarantined and put under medical observation and treatment in situ” in Article 40 aim to make every effort to interrupt the transmission of viruses to prevent the increase of infected cases and block the viruses’ infection chains that threaten lives. However, the implementation of those quarantine measures will inevitably cause the contradiction between “personal freedom” and “the right to life.” Article 37 of China’s Constitution provides that “the personal freedom of citizens of the People’s Republic of China is inviolable.” Do those isolation measures violate the right to personal freedom under the protection of the Constitution?

Human rights care for “humans” refers to a “favorable state that human beings hope to obtain or have obtained,” which involve various aspects of both spiritual and material worlds. However, “human rights” are not all about “humans”; instead they are merely specific expressions of parts of the rights enjoyed by human beings. In this sense, “human rights” reflect only one side of the coin for humans, and the other side is “obligations,” which are often neglected. When we talk about human rights, those theories that stress only human rights and ignore obligations are “diseased.” If we consider human rights theories a system, “human” is a concept at the highest level and “human rights” a concept at the secondary level. In such a system, “human rights” remain an abstract concept. However, “as a concept of universality and commonality, theoretically human rights should be open and diverse.” 5 To better understand the concept of human rights, we need to further elaborate on various specific rights. Only in this way can we completely understand rights. This brings about the tertiary concepts such as the right to life, the right to subsistence, the right to development, personality right, and “right to a healthy environment.

The hierarchical structure of the concept of human rights is seen in Figure 1, which shows that as a tertiary concept, human rights are a “right cluster” comprised of a series of rights. Moreover, the scope of third-generation rights is open and will continually expand along with people’s deeper understanding of themselves and the exter- nal world. In the general sense, different rights have equal values. However, such pure sequencing is a preset result of criteria. In a real specific environment, there should be a ranking of rights by value. For instance, the right to life takes precedence over other rights.


In modern times, global topics on human rights are usually regional, common questions such as freedom, justice and equality. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, there had never been a global public health emergency in which people around the world face a common threat of death. In a world with diversified economic, political, cultural and constitutional systems, how to reach consensus on life and how to seek a proper position for the right to life amid so many rights depends on which rule can save more lives. “Live free or die” is an oath made by Petofi Sandor. Doubtlessly, he said this as a way to resist oppression and tyranny. That means without freedom, one would live in a state worse than death. However, this is not a normal state, but a result of extreme conditions.

Although the construction of metaphysical theory on rights is supposed to have an internal logic of value sequencing, this theory fails to design value conflict that exists in reality. In reality, conflict between different rights is inevitable. Once such a conflict occurs, whether sequencing of the value of rights will emerge? Which rights should take precedence over others in such value sequencing? If different rights fall into conflict amid the COVID 19 pandemic, should we derogate some rights? Although individuals equally enjoy basic rights, the rights of some have been restricted to protect national interests, public interests and the rights of others, and even suffer derogations in specific conditions. This is understandable in any constitutional culture.

What rights should we derogate and to what degree? That is reliant on the demand of rights under protection. If COVID-19 didn’t threaten life and inflected patients could recover by drinking some hot water within two weeks just like patients with influenza, people around the world would have no need to panic so much and take lockdown measures. Generally, influenza won’t take the lives of those who are otherwise healthy. Therefore, amid an influenza epidemic, it is easier to reconcile the conflict between different rights. Therefore, other rights will be undoubtedly emphasized amid influenza since that disease generally does not threaten life. The reason that we attach so much importance to the spread of COVID-19 lies in its lethality.

“Right” is a term most frequently seen in legal documents, and at the same time, one of the most misused words. If we consider the specific scenario of the COVID-19 pandemic, we will find some phenomena related to the conflict of rights worth noticing. One example is the conflict between the right to life and freedom (including per- sonal freedom, freedom of migration, freedom of speech, etc.) and dignity. Amid the pandemic, freedom must be derogated because personal freedom needs to be realized through a person. Without life, a person cannot enjoy any freedom. This is the reason why the right to life takes precedence over all other rights.

Do the assertion “Live free or die” and the poem translated as “Life is dear, love is dearer. Both can be given up for freedom” reflect the Western mainstream idea that considers individual freedom the highest pursuit? Can this idea overthrow the theory of prioritizing the right to life over other rights on the specific occasion of the epidemic? Whether a saying can become an idea depends on whether it is merely a saying or slogan on a specific occasion or universally valid in reality. Isn’t it absurd that everyone shout the slogan “Live free or die” amid the outbreak of a high contagious and deadly virus? Chinese people believe that “life is of paramount importance.” This belief reflects Chinese people’s veneration for life, and they consider life more valuable than anything else. This is an idea of paramount value and universal meaning. What does “human” mean? We hereby talk about not only individuals but also a holistic concept comprised of individual persons. In this holistic concept, the pursuit for life itself reflects the value of human beings, and the ultimate understanding of life. For thousands of years, humans have tried hard to expand their life spans. Both technological advancement and cultural progress make prolonging life possible and it is the priority goal. Making life more dignified and meaningful is the mainstream outlook on life. In this sense, the right to life is worth protecting first. Let us figure out why we should prioritize safeguarding life from the perspective of human rights theory. From the perspective of their genesis, some rights are innate, such as the right to life, and some derive from society and are thus acquired, such as freedom, dignity and the right to property, which can be called social rights. Of all kinds of rights, the right to life is the only right directly related to humanity, while the connection between other rights and humanity must be explained. In this view, the right to life is the prerequisite and foundation of all rights. It is because of the existence of life that other rights come into being. Therefore, the value sequencing of rights is inevitable in specific scenarios, and the right to life deserves to be ranked first.

Statistics from the National Health Committee show that by May 2, 2020, China had reported 84,388 infected cases, including 4,643 deaths. A country with a population of 1.4 billion, China took 100 days to basically contain the spread of this lethal virus. Wuhan, the hardest-hit city in the country, has a population of nearly 20 million and reported 68,128 infected cases, including 4,512 deaths. We mourn for the lives lost to COVID-19. But compared to other countries and regions, China has undoubtedly made a much better performance in safeguarding lives in the fight against the pandemic, making the days when people lost their “freedom” worthwhile. We have not only effectively safeguarded millions of lives, but also made our pursuit of “freedom” more practical.

III. On Equality before Life

As aforesaid, saving lives is of paramount importance amid the epidemic. Undoubtedly, it is easy to reach consensus on this point. However, how should we sequence and choose to save which first if two or more lives are under the threat of death in the event of medical resource scarcity? According to metaphysical “criteria,” all lives should be equal. Whether we should make a sequence through the formulation of relevant “rules” depends on how the “rules” communicate with “criteria” under the guidance of rationality. Sequencing will be inevitable if the criteria and rules cannot be reconciled with each other. Once people begin to sequence the lives of different individuals, the bottom line of humanity will be crossed.

In fact, whether in the East or the West, equality is an eternal topic. “Men are born, and always continue, free and equal in respect of their rights.” The equality mentioned herein, first of all, means that everyone is equal before life. The concept of equality refers to an individual enjoy equal status in terms of politics and economy, as well as equal degree, value, quality, nature and capacity with others. As we make a general description of the concept, it merely exists in the form of “criteria.” As “criteria,” equality is an evaluation of the relationship between different persons that is expected or exists in reality, without directly pointing to any specific state. As “rules,” equality refers to an evaluation of mutually equal relationship between different people in reality. In the past, such as during the Renaissance, the abstract concept of equality was used as revolutionary slogan and banner. Thinkers with unique charm reiterated that our notion of equality derived from the original state that “men are born equal.” However, the stories told by those thinkers cannot prove whether such a state has existed in reality. After all, this proposition is an unrealistic hypothesis of a romantic nature.

The truth is that the notion of equality is acquired. Just as Rousseau said, men become “equal by agreement and legal right.” 6 However, the “agreement” is definitely not the “social contract” he imagined, but a code of conduct or psychological expectations formed in the process of socializing, which eventually defined the boundary between individuals and formed various kinds of “rights” to ensure “everyone is equal.” In fact, the concept of equality has a long history both in China and the West. As a matter of fact, absolute equality doesn’t exist in practice alongside the theorization of equality. For example, although ancient Greece — the spiritual home of Western human rights — nurtured a great deal of thought on equality, the concept never transformed into a reality we understand today.

French philosopher Pierre Leroux said that equality is “a principle, a creed, a faith and a form of worship.” 7 We notice that in his view, equality is merely an abstract being. In this sense, equality is a metaphysical question. The abstract, metaphysical form of equality also has meaning, and bears a unique mission to construct a kind of equal basic value and form the most extensive aim-oriented “criteria.” Therefore, equality will never exist as the means, but as the aim. If we consider equality as the aim, it must have its own ways of manifestation. What is the manifestation of equality and in which ways is equality manifested? Perhaps these questions can serve as the starting point for us to understand equality. Equality is a multi-dimensional concept. It can be reflected in a plethora of aspects, but any aspect cannot cover all parts of equality.

In many cases, equality as a “criterion” and equality as a “rule” are not equal but interrelated. It is certain that equality is not completely a metaphysical question; it has realistic meaning. This is because only in reality can equality be sensed, recognized and understood. It is impossible for people to use the “principle,” “creed,” “faith” and “form of worship” of equality as a ruler to measure which is equal and which is not in reality. Given that the notion of equality arises from specific experiences of inequality, any specific unequal phenomenon may directly influence our general judgment of equality. The “criteria” of equality can influence the “rules” of equality. Without the “criteria” of equality, equality would lack the pursuit of value and thus become utilitarian. Both theory and practice have proven that if we consider utilitarian equality our ultimate pursuit, we cannot achieve equality but get just the opposite. This has been fully demonstrated in the theories developed by Aristotle, John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, Giovanni Sartori and Amartya Sen.

It is also noteworthy that equality, first of all, is a moral concept. Moral equality plays a vital role in maintaining the virtuous life in the social community. However, moral equality is not as evident as legal equality. Just as Dworkin said, “the development of morality cannot be achieved by edicts.” 8 The reason is that apart from the social moral criteria that may exist, every person has his or her own moral criteria, and there may be a huge gap between the moral criteria of different individuals. The whole society cannot achieve uniformity in terms of personal moral criteria. It is the “Protean face” of equality that endows morality with personal attributes, which is particularly evident when one evaluates and judges social phenomena. Humans are given top priority in a society with the principle of morality as the order. In this sense, mankind as a whole has no differences in terms of morality. However, some individual behaviors may be considered immoral in society, which is different from the concept of morality as the aforesaid social equality. For example, the frequently used phrase “moral degradation” represents a person or a group of people’s evaluation of the behaviors of another person or another group of people. There isn’t a society that doesn’t admit such moral evaluation. In fact, such evaluation manifests an individual’s idea of equality. Equality can only be demonstrated through rights, and “rights” are a multi-dimensional concept. Previously, we merely classified equality into equality in “criteria” and equality in “rules.” That is to say, as we speak of safeguarding the rights of anyone, there seems to be no boundary or specific reference, and its scope is actually ambiguous. When we say everyone enjoys equal rights, which rights do we mean, the right to life, property rights, liberty, political rights or personality rights? Mortimer J. Adler said in his Six Great Ideas: “Human equality consists in the fact that no human being is more or less human than another because all have the same specific nature by virtue of belonging to one and the same species.” 9 Therefore, comparing measurable legal rights and immeasurable moral rights, we can find that legal equality may be realized more easily, but it is difficult to achieve moral equality. 10

Amid this pandemic, in the event of medical resources scarcity, some in the West proposed that “people aged 65 and above leave hope to younger people.” This is a wicked behavior to abandon the lives of the vulnerable. And any schemes to implement “de-isolation” and “no isolation” merely for political or economic reasons only meet the private interests of a political party or individuals. First, every life is by nature equal. Equal treatment of every life is the most fundamental bottom line for a human to treat others. The act to deliberately abandon the elderly and the sick goes against the spirit of any civilized society, represents blatant defiance of the ideas of caring for and respecting people, equality of personality, fraternity and mutual respect advocated by humanism, deviates from the idea that “all human beings are born equal” in universal Declaration of Human rights, and loses the bottom line of humanity. Second, the proposition of classifying and sequencing people by the delineation between the weak and the strong will bring about danger and hazard greater than expected in reality. If we rank the value of people by the delineation between the weak and the strong, will the delineation between the rich and the poor become an indicator in future sequencing, and then by race? By analogy, there will be numerous sequencing means, but nonetheless the strong will take precedence.

During World War II, German Nazis conducted the genocide of European Jews because they labeled the Jews as an “evil, mercenary and morally degraded” ethnic group that could only “harm humankind” and should therefore be “eliminated.” The Nazis believed that the Aryans with blond hair and blue eyes were a “master race” and should dispel the Jews to guarantee the purity of their blood line. They held that the Aryans would eventually conquer the world, and that they need to eliminate other inferior races and people to seek more space for their own development. That means the Nazi holocaust of the Jews was just a beginning, all other ethnic groups would be eventually massacred to ensure that the Aryans would be the only “master race” dominating the world. The policy resulted in the massacre of millions of Jews. The genocide of Native Americans that occurred in North America from the 16 th to 19 th century is also because European colonists viewed Native Americans as an “uncivilized inferior race” by sequencing different groups of people. During the Anglo-American War, General Andrew Jackson, who later became the seventh president of the United States, declared that it was necessary to eliminate all American Indian tribes. During the American Civil War, General William T. Sherman said, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” After winning the Civil War, the troops of the North launched another war against Native Americans. Statistics show that about 25 million Native Americans were massacred during the Westward Movement. All these genocides were results of social sequencing. Once the sequencing becomes habitual, people will be ceaselessly sequenced by classification, which will trigger a tragedy of humankind and result in endless atrocities.

Every life shall be equal, whether in theory or in practice. The idea that “all human beings are born equal” in universal Declaration of Human rights should not be just an empty talk or exist only as a belief; it should be restored in practice. There isn’t any delineation between the weak and the strong before life. We often say that a civilized society is a society in which the weak are well protected. Only when the weak are equally protected can we expect everyone is duly protected. In fact, this universally acknowledged “criterion” isn’t hard to be realized in practical “rules.” The key lies in whether we care for “humans” as a whole or just a certain group of people. The correct attitude toward the weak reflects the idea of true equality in people’s minds.

IV. Conclusion

German sociologist Ulrich Beck first introduced the concept of a “risk society” 11 in his 1986 book risk Society: Towards a new modernity to describe today’s highly developed modern Western society. In the book, he introspected and criticized the social phenomenon of growing risk factors since the emergence of modernity from the sociological perspective. Nowadays, with the flattening of the world, risk society doesn’t merely consist of highly developed modern societies. Beck seemed to warn us that risks are with us anywhere and anytime. “Risk society” is a fruit of human society, especially modern society. Public health emergencies are the best example of the common risks societies face. With the advent of a risk society, public health emergencies are no longer occasional incidents. Instead, they might become a more frequent problem in the development of modernity.

Who or which will play the greatest role in the face of catastrophes? The answer is definitely the state. People’s lives and health should be given top priority, and the state must make safeguarding people’s lives and health its utmost task. In the face of risks, what a state should do is to stand up and shoulder the responsibility to cope with risks, in the spirit of safeguarding human rights, humanism, equality and justice, and never cross the bottom line of morality or ignore basic human rights. This is the meaning of a state and the supreme virtue of a state. A state that cannot safeguard its people’s right to life and health is meaningless, just as interpreted by the theory of the State founded upon the free contract. To judge whether a state has justice, we should see whether the state can adjust social relations to satisfy all members of its society. In fact, no state can meet the demand of all social members, but it can earn recognition and satisfaction from the majority of its social members. This is an inherent part of democracy.
(Translated by LIU Haile)

* ZHANG Yonghe ( 张永和 ), Executive Director of Human Rights Institute, Southwest University of Political Science and Law.
1. The phrase “Three Graves and Five Classics” was first mentioned in the chapter “The 12 th Year of the Zhaogong Reign” in The Spring and Autumn Annals: King Ling of Chu praised Left Imperial Historian Yi Xiang, “You’re a good historian who is proficient in Three Graves, Five Classics, Eight Diagrams and Nine Hills. Later, Du Yu annotated that all of them are “ancient books.” The Preface to The Book of History said, “The books by Fuxi, Shennong and the Yellow Emperor are called Three Graves, which elaborate the great Tao (truth); the books by Shaohao, Zhuanxu, Gaoxin (also known as Ku), Tang (Yao) and Yu (Shun) are called Five Classics.” Zheng Xuan noted that the “Three Graves and Five Classics” are books written by the Three Emperors and Five Sovereigns, all legendary monarchs in ancient China. Therefore, the “Three Graves” are books by the Three Emperors, and the “Five Classics” are books by the Five Sovereigns. It is commonly believed that Eight Diagrams and Nine Hills are about the Eight Diagrams and the geography of nine prefectures in China, respectively. Some hold that the two books refer to River Map and Luo Chart.
2. Karl Jaspers, The origin and Goal of History, trans. Li Xuetao (Shanghai: East China Normal University Press, 2018), 7.
3. Michael Ignatieff, Human rights as politics and Idolatry (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 53.
4. Yuan Zhengqing, Li Zhiyong and Zhufu Xiaofei, “The Reshaping of Chinese and International Human Rights Criteria”, Social Sciences in China 7 (2016): 189-203.
5. Zhao Tingyang, “‘Credit’ Human Rights: A Non-Western Theory of Universal Human Rights”, Social Sciences in China 4 (2006): 17-20.
6. Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, trans. He Zhaowu (Beijing: The Commercial Press, 1982), 33.
7. Pierre Leroux, De l’égalité, trans. Wang Yundao (Beijing: The Commercial Press, 1988), 20.
8. Ronald Dworkin, Taking rights Seriously, trans. Xin Chunying and Wu Yuzhang (Shanghai: Shanghai Sanlian Bookstore Co., Ltd., 2008), 23.
9. Mortimer J. Adler, Six Great Ideas, trans. Hao Qinghua (Shanghai: Shanghai Sanlian Bookstore Co., Ltd., 1991), 9.
10. Zhang Yonghe, “Evaluation and Analysis of Public Equality Idea in China”, China Legal Science 5 (2015).
11. Ulrich Beck, risk Society: Towards a new modernity, trans. Zhang Wenjie and He Bowen (Nanjing: Yilin Press, 2018), 3.

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