I once again need to split one of my parts into 2 pieces to keep them from being too long.Come on internet users its all your fault for having such short attention spans, and I am already bored with this sentence.
So here in Part 4.1 we will look at Personhood rights.
Remember that we previously defined A right as a claim or entitlement which a being is owed based on its affiliations, actions, or nature. In the case of the rights that persons have we are almost always concerned with moral rights, since whatever legal rights persons have will depend on their society, and thus there may be quite a bit of variance there. Yet the moral rights of persons should be based on the nature and actions of a person, strictly speaking affiliation is more social and belongs more clearly to the idea of legal rights. So a person has certain moral rights because of their nature as a person.
However rights are the kinds of things that we can give up, even natural rights. We might lose our moral rights if we do particularly evil things, and it also does not make sense to say that we have a right on which we cannot act. I cannot have a right to fly by flapping my non-existent wings, though I may have a right to ride on an airplane. So although a person has moral rights because of their nature as a person, they must also be capable of acting on or claiming these rights in order for them to be in effect.
One problematic case that might come up is this: A person is walking home late one night and they are violently attacked and killed by another person. The attacker may claim that the murder does not violate any personhood rights, since their victim was unable to lay a claim to those rights by acting to preserve their own life. The problem is that the victim here does lay a claim to the right to live, unless they choose to forfeit it. The point is this, once you are a person with personhood rights then you lay claim to all of those rights by continuing to be a person, and you only lose this claim if you cease to be a person or if you choose to forfeit those rights. There is an activity involved in being a person but merely existing in the state of personhood should be enough to grant you all of the moral rights of personhood.
It should also be mentioned that rights can be either negative (the right to avoid something or keep something from being done to you), or positive (the right to gain something or receive some benefit which you are owed.)
Furthermore the rights of one person may come into conflict with the rights of another person. In such situations where rights are competing or conflicting we would try to give precedence to the right which was more important, or to the person who was more important.
Example: the secret service is tasked to protect the president. Now these service women and men have a right to live, and we might even claim that the right to life is the most important right. Yet if someone is shooting at the president then it is their job, and their moral duty, to put themselves in harm’s way. In this case the president is a more important person than any one of, or even than almost all of, the members of the secret service. Since their rights to life are the rights in conflict then we settle the dispute by upholding the right to life of the most important person, the president. Some people might take issue with this example but there are numerous other cases where we decided a conflict based on the relative importance of the persons involved.
Now in the case of other kinds of moral conflicts we might try to decide them based on whichever rights are the most important. So in the case of security forces conducting random searches and seizures, one’s right to privacy is being violated. Yet since that right is of far less importance than the right to safety of those around you then this conflict will be decided in favor of the right to safety. Again people may take issue with this example, but there are numerous other examples of this kind of thinking.
Now I want to play one of my favorite games, listing off the personhood rights. (as an important side note all of these personhood rights are moral rights. Their legal versions may be more or less open than the ones I have defined here)
- The right to life – negative, conditional, possible conflicts
This is the classic right and it tends to top everyone’s lists, but it’s not as great as you might think. It is a negative right, and it might be more accurate to say that this is the moral right not to be killed. After all most people tend to think that this right is fairly minimal. The right to life does not include any benefits or any gains. This seems to be clear when you consider that if someone came along, tapped you on the shoulder, and said that you no longer had the right to life, this would have no immediate effect on you. You would still go on living. All they could mean by denying you this right, is that now anyone who wishes to may kill you with moral repercussions. Strictly speaking, being alive is not beneficial since it is the most basic condition one must be in, in order to receive benefit or harm. Life is a state in which we find ourselves and we are no more guaranteed the next day than we are guaranteed the next second. It is not an added benefit to anything, since it is the thing I must have in the first place before I can even have benefits.Also this right is clearly conditional, insofar as I can lose it if I behave in a violent, criminal, or threatening capacity. One of the aspects of personhood is interacting with other persons in societies, communities, or groups. When the actions of one member of a group threaten all of the other members of that group we often suspend their right to life, since if we do not then we will all lose our own right to life. We think this is more justified the more people who are threatened. We think this is not so clearly justified is the threat is not real and if very few people are threatened. Yet the right to life never has been, and never could be, unconditional. It might be very common, but even if I am denied this right I might still retain many others so this right is not necessary for me to have other rights. After all we do treat criminals on death row with a certain dignity which maintains many of their other rights, even though they have technically lost the right to life.This right also has great potential for conflicts, after all that’s basically what war is. The conflict between person’s competing rights to life. That 2 opposed soldiers are persons seems clear, and if they have a right to life then this will be in jeopardy because their task is to kill their enemy, thus denying that other person their right to life.
- The right to freedom – positive and negative, unconditional, numerous conflicts
This right is negative since being free means being free from outside interference. This right is also positive since being free means to be free and open to new activities and opportunities. Freedom is clearly a beneficial situation, and I may easily be denied my freedom in both senses.Yet freedom is an unconditional right, precisely because it is not something which I can ever completely revoke. I may revoke someone’s negative right to freedom and try to enslave them, but I cannot ever completely deny someone their basic positive right to freedom. The simple fact that persons make choices as one of their essential features, shows us how important the right to freedom is. Even the prisoner benefits from the simple everyday freedoms of being left to make small decisions. We cannot every be denied this right unless we do not exist as persons any longer.Yet clearly the right to free choice will create conflicts when I choose the same thing that someone else has chosen. The whole point of a romantic love triangle is that 2 people have fallen in love with and chosen the same person. Generally these are resolved by the beloved choosing whichever lover the beloved likes best, thus resolving the conflicting rights by choosing the most important person.
- The right to ownership – positive, conditional, endless conflicts
This right isn’t even guaranteed by the declaration of independence, yet it is one of the founding rights for almost all forms of social living. This is a clearly positive right, since the right to own a car grants me access to and use of the benefit of that car. Yet such a right is no guarantee of anything, since that car may break, or cease to be valuable.One might say that the right to not be stolen from is a negative version of the right to ownership, but consider this problem. You cannot take your possessions with you when you die. Also just because I have the right to own something does not give me complete control over what I own. The objects I own may have some degree of autonomy and thus I cannot claim that my right to ownership is a right to not have my possessions stolen anymore than I can claim that it is the right to never lose my possessions or have them break and decrease in value. The right not to be stolen from is more appropriately a legal right. Besides the right to ownership is limited to my right to own whatever is firmly within my own power. So whatever is stolen from me is clearly not in my own power, and this right is therefore heavily conditional.Yet since we brought up stealing then yes we experience nearly endless conflicts with this right. Though we do not usually experience conflicts between people who claim that others do not have this right, but rather between people who claim that this right does not extend to certain objects.
There probably are many other rights, but this brief list hits the big ones. So now the obvious question is what order do these 3 rights go in? In order of importance they are the right to freedom, then ownership, and finally the right to life. Here’s why.
I need freedom more than I need anything else, since freedom is the most basic thing I need in order to procure everything else. The right to life is not something I need unless my life is being threatened by another person. After all consider that the lion which seeks to devour me cares nothing for my personhood rights, since not being a person, it does not know what personhood means. My right to life only matters in contact and community with other persons who may care about it or not. They may see me as potentially dangerous but who must recognize my value and not seek to kill me without good cause. No, I need freedom first and foremost since the ability to determine for myself what I will and will not do is essential in order for me to act out my deliberate choices and indicate my intentions. Also more important than the right to life is the right to ownership, since the right to ownership constitutes a basic right to food, water, and shelter. This grants me a basic moral access to the things I need in order to survive in the world, or to defend my right to life should it be attacked. Thus before I can have a right to life I must first have the right to freedom, and then the right to ownership.
The right to life is important, however, since it governs my interactions with all other persons. One of the profound facts about personhood is that in recognizing another person we also recognize that this is not a thing I can own, nor a choice over which I have power. In recognizing the right to life of another person I recognize them as a person and thus realize that they have the right to freedom and ownership.
The final post of this series is imminent!