The final post of this series will address the issue of the rights of non-persons and finally answer the question, Are all persons of equal value?
So what about the rights of non-persons?
Just because persons have rights does not mean that other kinds of organisms do not have rights. If an organism is able to act in such a way as to lay a claim to an entitlement then it has rights. This means, quite simply, ALL ANIMALS HAVE RIGHTS! Even animals we traditionally like to kill and eat have rights. They may even have some of the same rights as persons. Animals are able to lay claims to resources and objects that they desire. Even a sea-sponge has rights, since it at least lays claim to its particular part of the ocean floor and the water which flows through its body. Perhaps one of the most basic rights an animal may claim is the right to control over its own body. This would be a negative right since this would effectively mean its right to be free from outside interference with its own bodily affairs. It seems that persons would only be justified in violating this right to autonomy for very good reasons. Yet a full discussion of animal rights is beyond the scope of this current project so I will have to table that for another date. (Though if you are interested I encourage you to read some Peter Singer, I recommend Animal Liberation, as his best known book. )
Individual rocks and minerals do not have rights, although it’s possible that mountain ranges and geographical regions of the world may have rights. A mountain range may have a basic right to its autonomy, for certainly a mountain does not easily yield up its valuable resources. A mountain range may , by merit of its nature as a mountain range, deserve certain protections and possess certain entitlements. Though a discussion of geographical rights is also beyond this project.
Indeed plants do have some rights. Yet individual plants may not have rights since plants are not individualized things. Plants are conglomerations of various parts and in a way that is very different from animals, plants may die and grow back and shed parts of themselves and continue to exist. The reason we ordinarily do not think that plants have rights is that it is very difficult to violate those rights. Plants have very simple needs and they are able to survive almost complete and total annihilation and still grow back to the same size. This is why the vegetarian does not automatically violate the plant’s right to life by eating it. A plant is more than the leaf, root, or fruit that you devour, so as long as you do not harvest or eat those things in excess the plant will continue to grow and produce more. Yet it may make sense to talk about deforestation as violating plant rights, and it certainly makes sense to talk about modern agriculture as placing severe strain on plants. Non-organic crops are not given the full range of their freedom and thus are not allowed to develop as they naturally would.
Also, human zygotes, embryos, and fetuses have rights too. Though perhaps the only right that they can properly be said to have would be the right to life. They do not have the right to freedom since the fetus is unable to exercise any real free choice, at least not prior to personhood. They also do not have the right to ownership, especially since everything in their immediate environment is already owned by their mother, including the basic means of their survival, the umbilical cord and placenta. Though as it develops into a nervous system having fetus, then the organism does gain personhood and thus all the rights of personhood. Yet prior to that stage of development the fetus only possesses the right to life. Which means that it has a basic right not to be killed so long as it poses no threat or danger to anyone else.
Yet in the case where the fetus does pose a risk to the health of its mother, who is a person, then its right to life is forfeit. This must also be clear when you consider that a fetus’ right to life, even without a direct threat to the mother’s health, conflicts with the mothers right to freedom and with the mother’s right to ownership. You see the fetus does not, and will not, automatically develop into a healthy little infant unless the mother actively chooses, exercising her right to freedom and her right to ownership, to take care of her body in such a way as to provide a healthy environment for the fetus. The fetus is an utterly dependent being, and as such it cannot actually have the right to freedom until it becomes a viable person. This should be obvious when we consider that a person must be able to make deliberate choices, and a being which exists in a state of complete and utter dependency on another being is not capable of actually making choices. So only at the point where the fetus is capable of surviving outside of its mother does it really become a person. Prior to that a fetus may certainly possess the right to life, but if this right in any way threatens the mother’s rights to freedom or ownership then the fetus is also threatening the mother and is thus forfeiting its right to life.
But if the mother chooses, because she is a person, to suspend her rights to freedom and her rights to certain kinds of ownership, and to provide for the existence of a fetus, then no rights are being violated. The mother must make an active choice, and must remake this choice all the time, to provide for the health, safety, and survival of the fetus which remains an utterly dependent being till the age of viability. Around 22-26 weeks a fetus is capable of surviving if removed from the uterus of its mother. It should be stressed, however, that its odds of survival at this stage are incredibly low, and it will require constant medical care and attention for the next few months. The age of viability is really just the minimum age at which, thanks to advances in medical science, we can extract a fetus from a woman and put it in a NICU with even the slightest hope that it can survive. The survivability rate apparently goes up to 85% after 26 weeks, but even then a newborn infant is going to be subject to all manner of health problems. The bottom line is that a fetus is simply not a person, nor is it even a particularly healthy animal. The rights of the mother must always come before the rights of the fetus since the fetus is completely dependent on its mother.
A mistake to make at this point would be to analogize this relationship between fetus and mother and claim that the mother has a greater moral responsibility to the fetus in the same way that a parent has a moral responsibility to their child. That since a child is helpless a parent has a greater moral urgency to take care of it. This is not the same thing as the mother fetus relationship. A fetus is not helpless, a fetus is non-viable. A helpless infant is able to breathe and its body is able to regulate itself in order to maintain the continued existence of the infant. A fetus is unable to last for even a few seconds if forcefully removed from the uterus prior to at least minimal viability. There is a moral relationship between parents and children which is a primarily social one. This is not the relationship which exists between a mother and a fetus because no one except for the mother has access to the fetus. The life of the fetus is not a social burden that may be borne by others, in the way that others may care for an abandoned child. There is no clear biological separability between fetus and mother. The life of a fetus must be sustained by constant effort and attention from its mother. If something threatens the mother’s life, livelihood, social functionality, mental state, and/or social status then that threatens her basic personhood rights. It is within the purview of the mother, the only person who has access to the fetus and the person on whom the fetus absolutely depends, to determine whether or not the fetus constitutes such a threat.
If the mother determines that the fetus is such a threat, then she is morally justified (and possibly even morally obligated) to terminate the life of the fetus.
Of course the question still remains as to whether all persons are of equal value. In answer we might say NO, but they all have equal access to the basic rights of personhood, and these rights cannot be violated without good cause.
The carnivore is justified in eating the herbivore since there is no other way for the carnivore to survive. If we human persons decide that we need to eat animals, or even non-human persons then we need to put a lot of work into justifying that this is for a very good cause. We need to explain that it is not only our survival which matters, but also the survival of the planet and all other species on it. Various, now mostly defunct, cultures the world over often participated in religious rituals to make up for the activities of farming and hunting. We understood that we needed to thank or appease the gods when we took something out of the world, even something which we needed for survival.
We may not be justified in taking the lives of animals and non-human persons, or even human persons, on the grounds that we are more important. This is why monotheism claims that man is made in the image of God. That special importance of human beings, and especially of male human beings and white male human beings, is perhaps the only thin justification for our complete domination of the world.
We may want to rethink how justified that domination is.
I leave you with some pictures of the memorial at Brookside Gardens to those slain by John Allen Muhammad, and Lee Boyd Malvo in the Sniper attacks of 2002. All involved, both those killed and the killers were persons.