8.1. We are not alone

That, then, is a brief sketch of the moral implications in what we are as individuals. But we are not alone; and what we do affects other people, and what others do affects us. In that sense, others are part of our reality. Sometimes the goals others have become goals in our own life, as when we deliberately choose to help others achieve their self-defined goals. Sometimes we have to adapt ourselves to others' interference in our lives, and in this way the goals we choose for ourselves are different from what they would have been if the others had not be what they are. It is time now to look at this dimension of our reality.

8.1.1. Ways people relate to others

Now there are basically two ways can relate to other people: as independent individuals confronting other independent individuals, or as interdependent members of a community cooperating with other interdependent members of the community. These two relationships could be called the economic and the social relationships respectively.

We will have to examine both of them, not only because both are dimensions of human life, but because economic and business theories tend toward a kind of reductionism of one to another: capitalistic theories tend to say that if everything were reduced to economic relationships (i.e. if we were really left alone by society and could just act as really free individuals), the world would be a fine place; and communistic theories tend to say that if we could get rid of the economic relationship altogether and have it taken over by society, utopia would dawn.

Neither seems to work; but both sides claim that that's because neither has been tried in its pure form. The Communists say that until Capitalism is erased from the whole world, there are always individual transactions that are messing things up; and the Capitalists say that we never have had a truly free market, because ever since the beginning, the government has been meddling in one way or another.

This is certainly true. And I think the reason that it's true is that human nature is such that you can't really escape both types of human relationship--since we are basically self-determining beings; but we can only determine ourselves in the context of having others around us (among other things so that we can know from observation what our possibilities are for self-determination). So we depend even for our self-determination on others.

Of course, these two ways of relating imply that we behave to others in two manners: (a) as people who can interfere with our self-development or who can aid it, and whose self-development we can aid--or in ordinary terms, as "equals"; and (b) as members of a "team," in which the concern is not the individual development of each member, but in the task the team as such has to do, toward which each member contributes as he is able.

In both cases, we want to count on or be able to predict the behavior of other people toward us. We want in the first case to be sure that they don't interfere with our self-development, and that they will help us in it when we want them to; in the second case, we want to be sure that they will do their part in the task before us, whatever it is.

But since in both cases, it can be in itself advantageous for others to do what we don't want them to, then if this behavior is to be predictable, it must be motivated--i.e. made to their advantage. But how do we do this?

Obviously, by reward and punishment. In the first case, the punishment for someone who tries to interfere with my self-development is that I will defend myself; and the reward is that if you help me, I will give you equal help in your self-development. So the economic relationship is the realm of rights and that of compensation for services rendered.

Motivation in the social relationship is that if people refuse to cooperate, they are punished by the society; and when they do cooperate, they share in the benefits of the society and have the fellow-feeling of being "together" with others in the task they are doing. So the social relationship is the realm of laws and love.

Let us, then, first examine the primary aspect of the economic relationship: that of rights.

[See also Modes, 6.1.1 and Modes, 6.1.1]

8.2. Rights in general

When you have a right to do something, this means that in a certain sense you can do it. But it doesn't necessarily mean that you have the physical power to do it. You have a right to play the oboe, even if you don't have the skill to do it.

It means that you "can" in this sense: (a) that it is not morally wrong for you to do it, and (b) that it is morally wrong for anyone to try to stop you from doing it.

DEFINITION: A right is a moral power to do something.

"Moral" power is to be taken in the sense just above.

The right to own something, for instance, means (a) that it is not wrong for you to use it, even to use it up, or even keep it without using it; and (b) it is wrong for anyone else to prevent your having or using it, or to use it himself against your will.

The general basis of all rights is personhood.

Not to make a long discussion out of this, the basis of rights is not "equality;" it is the fact that we are persons. If it should turn out that there are persons essentially superior to ourselves, we would still have rights against them (as we do, for instance, against angels).

But what is a person? For our purposes of this discussion, let the following definition suffice:

DEFINITION: A person is a self-determining being in a situation where his self-determination can be interfered with by other persons' self-determining acts.

The idea here is that if I, as a person, choose to determine myself as an arm-swinger, and my swinging my arm bloodies your nose, my self-determining activity has prevented you from determining yourself as someone whose nose is intact.

But I could only consistently act this way if I were the only self-determining being; because I recognize that if the situation were reversed, I would be put in the position of being a self-determining being who could not determine himself because of someone else's self-determining activity (arm-swinging in this case). But that clearly contradicts my reality as self-determining.

Therefore, if I am a person, I must respect everyone else's self-determination. In other words, a person who does not respect the rights of others contradicts his reality as a person.

Three things follow from this:

First of all, it immediately follows that no one has a right to do anything that violates any right of anyone else. As soon as I violate any right of another person, I am contradicting the basis on which I claim rights against others; so I can't have a "right" to do this.

Secondly, only persons have rights. Animals and the non-human (or better, non-self-determining) environment in general have no rights. We may have obligations dealing with animals and the environment, but not because they have any rights against us. Why? Because, since they are not self-determining, there can't be reciprocity. They can't control themselves so that they can enter into an agreement that means, "If you let me alone, I'll let you alone." When they interfere with us, they can't help it; and we certainly can't let them determine themselves if they're not self-determining to begin with.

Thirdly, non-existent things have no rights. We hear much nowadays about the "rights of the children of future generations" when we are talking about polluting the environment. But the children to come are only possibilities, and there is even less of a chance for reciprocity than with animals. Suppose something happens and the children ten generations from now never get born--so there aren't any. How can they have any rights against us if there isn't any "they" to have the rights?

Now that doesn't mean that we don't have obligations based on the likelihood that others will have to use the world after we get through with it. The point is that these obligations are not because of their right against us, but have some other foundation. (Actually, they are based on the inconsistency in our being able to foresee what is likely to happen and acting as if what is likely probably won't happen.)

You might think that if our obligations are the same as if these future people had rights, it doesn't make any difference what our obligation is based on. But it does. If we can't be clear about when a person can claim a right against others, then we will be in the situation now, with people claiming all sorts of bizarre rights, and no one able to dismiss them, because no one knows whether they really have them or not.

[See also A HREF="../modes/modes6\m6a1.htm#6.1">Modes, 6.1]

8.2.1. Claiming a right

But it would seem that if rights are based on a person's self-determination, then we could claim rights to do whatever we pleased. If we are prevented from doing what we please, then our self-determination is being interfered with, and isn't that what rights are all about?

But this doesn't work. Remember that what rights are for is to enable us to act; and if it becomes morally wrong to prevent a person from doing whatever he pleases, then the result is that no one will be able to do anything.

Why is that? Consider that Johnny and Frankie want to play with the same toy at the same time. Mom tells Johnny to let Frankie play with it now, and then he can have it in half an hour, even if Frankie still wants to play with it then. But if rights mean that you can do what you please, then Mom's act is morally wrong, and she can't tell Johnny to leave the toy alone now; but by the same token, she can't tell it to Frankie either--and so neither of them can play with the toy at all, until one stops wanting to. But Mom's act enables both to play with it. Hence, Mom's interference accomplishes in practice what the right was supposed to accomplish, and insistence on the "right" to do what you please achieves in practice the opposite effect.

Then when do we have a right?

A right can be claimed only when a person can show that interference in his action makes him behave in a way contradictory to his actual reality.

That is, if you kill me, then I am a living being who has to stop living; but the thrust of life is to go on indefinitely (a position I am not going to defend here, but which is defensible, and which, as we saw, is an argument for human life's continuing after death). If you prevent me from voting and I am a citizen, then I am a citizen who can't act as a citizen; and so on.

DEFINITION: The title to a right is the aspect of the person's reality which would be contradicted by the violation of the right.

So the title which allows me to claim a right has to be some property I now possess which is contradicted if I am prevented from doing something. Thus, my present life is my title to the right to go on living; my citizenship the title to vote; the title to my car is the title to my right to drive and fix and polish and do other things to this particular car; my driver's license the title to drive (some) automobile in Ohio--and so on. Some titles have documents with them, others are just aspects of ourselves.

You can't claim a right based on something that you could become but aren't at the moment. Thus, you don't have the right to a worker's pay when you're still in training.


You do not have a right because you think you have a right, however sincerely you may think so.

Be very clear on this. Rights do not depend on your knowledge of your reality (still less your belief or opinion), because they impose obligations on others. Hence, you have a right because some actual aspect of your reality would be violated without it, whether you (or anyone else) realizes you have that aspect or not. Thus, it is quite possible that we in fact have rights that no one has discovered yet, because no one has as yet carefully analyzed the particular aspect of human reality that gives us the title.

In spite of all that was said above, however, a person is a self-determining being, and so this gives him a kind of title to do what he pleases with himself.

Every person has the generic "right" to do whatever he wants with himself, unless there is a reason for preventing him from doing so.

This "reason" need not be a strict right of someone else, but some act another person wants to do that the first one's act is interfering with; or it might be some social good. The point is that a person is not arbitrarily to be deprived of doing what he wants with himself. This "generic right," however, is not the same as a strict right, because strictly speaking a right imposes the moral obligation of non-interference with another person; and you can interfere with someone else's doing what he wants to do if you have an overriding reason for doing so. The only time when you can interfere with someone's exercising his right is, as we will see, when you can use the Double Effect.

8.2.2. Kinds of rights

The different sorts of titles are what define the different kinds of rights we have.

We don't need to go deeply into them here; but I will name a few.

Human rights have as their title the fact that we are human beings, and the various properties we have as human. Life is one. The ability to see is another--so that we have a right to see. Many of the so-called "civil rights" that were claimed in the 'sixties were actually human rights which were being denied by law. Human right must be acknowledged by society; and so all human rights are (or should be) civil rights; but not all civil rights are human rights.

Civil rights, of course, are the rights we have by our title of citizenship in a nation. These depend on the constitution of the nation; so that in our country, voting is a civil right for every citizen (now); but, since the right to vote is not a human right, it need not be--and in fact, was not in our country for its first century of existence.

Acquired rights are those that you do something special to get, such as the right to drive a car, which is granted only after you have passed a test.

Contractual rights are acquired rights that follow from a promise that some person makes to you. In general, they are "put in writing"; but since rights are actually moral matters, the document only serves to prove that the contract was made, and the right exists to have the promise fulfilled whether or not anyone signed anything. (This is also true legally, by the way. If you can prove someone promised to do something, even if it wasn't in writing, you can hold him to it.)

Implied rights are rights that follow either from some other right or from some obligation we have. That is, if my exercise of a right or obligation involves some action in addition to the act I have (strictly speaking) a right to do, then I have the implied right to do the other action also; otherwise, I would not be able to do the act I had the right to do.

It is this implied right which is violated by the so-called "Catch-22": E.g. "You have a right to leave the country if you can get a doctor's certificate of health; but all the doctors are outside the country." This actually happened to some Africans Thor Heyerdahl was trying to get to build one of his ancient-type boats.

[See also Modes, 6.1.6]

8.2.3. Against whom the right exists

If a right is the power to do something in the sense of making it morally wrong for the action to be prevented, then in one sense we have a right "against" everyone else; that is, no one can prevent us from exercising it.

But there are times when not doing something for a person can be the equivalent of preventing him from doing what he has a right to do. And it may be that one person's help would be all he needs to exercise his right, and many people's help would actually be interference. In this case, the person has a right against some specific other person. But how do we find out who it is?

A person has a right against those people who are in practice preventing or able to prevent him from exercising it.

Thus, my son, until he reached adulthood, had a right against me for support. Since I am the one who is responsible for his beginning to exist, then if I didn't support him, I would in effect be killing him; while if you don't support him, this does not do him any damage.

Similarly, I don't really have any right not to have my privacy invaded by those who live in India, because they can't in practice do it--and to impose an "obligation" on them to respect the privacy of George Blair is silly. But I do have this right against my students (except in the area of my competence as a teacher), against my coworkers, and so on--who might invade my privacy.

8.2.4. Defending a right

Rights make it morally wrong for those against whom we have them to interfere with our exercise of our right. But what happens if they don't recognize our claim, or if they don't care whether they're being immoral or not? Does this mean that we can't do what we have a right to do?

If that were the case, then we could kiss rights goodbye as something meaningful. Since morality (as we saw) depends on conscience, then our right not to be interfered with would depend on whether others knew we weren't to be interfered with--and so our rights would be being trampled on all the time, and in practice we wouldn't have any.

But if you use force to defend your right, aren't you violating the violator's right to physical integrity? After all, he has a right not to have a bloody nose or not to get killed. But how else can you defend yourself if your right is being violated?

Some have got out of the dilemma by saying that the attacker forfeits his rights when he violates someone else's right. But this makes his rights (and by extension everyone's) contingent upon virtuous activity. Thus, a person would have a right to life only if he isn't violating anyone else's rights; but since we can do this unwittingly, then we would only have a right to life if by accident we didn't happen to be violating someone else's right. It also puts the defender in the--to say the least awkward--position of having to ask, "Are you doing this virtuously, or with malice aforethought?" before he can defend himself. Further, does the violator forfeit all rights (so that you can kill him if he prevents you from playing the piano when you have a right to do it), or only some; and if only some, which ones? The one corresponding to yours? Then if he prevents you from playing the piano, you can't hit him or push him, you can only keep him from playing it.

Obviously, that position won't work in practice. We can defend a right whether it is being violated by a person who is "innocent" or "guilty."

But then how do we avoid putting ourselves in the same position as he is in--violating his right?

The answer is that our action in fact results in the violation of his right, but we do not choose the violation; and with the double effect, the act of defense of our right is not immoral.

The reasoning goes this way. You can perform an action which will block the action of the violator; and if harm comes to him, then the harm is unchosen.

Note that the "blocking" means an act such that it will stop the act of violation; it is not confined to just putting up a shield. If a person is fighting with you, it might be possible to block his punches without hitting back (if you're an expert at it); but in practice, the only effective way to stop him might be to hit him in the face and break his nose. So you can actually do damage to another person, if the rules below are fulfilled.


The Double Effect in defending a right only applies when an actual act violating the right is being performed.

You can't "block" an intention to do you harm, even if you know that the person means it. You can, however, block actual preparations for the harm, because this is an act.

1. The act you perform is in itself neutral. If you swing your arm and his face isn't there, then no wrong is done. If you pull the trigger and the gun doesn't go off, then there's no wrong done. So the wrong is in the effect of the act you perform, not the act itself.

2. The act has a good effect; your right is protected. Note here that you have to have some reason to believe that you action can have this good effect in order for this rule to be fulfilled. To engage in a fistfight with Muhammad Ali in order "to protect your right" to something he was violating would be insane.

3. The bad effect does not bring about the good one. In this case, it is not the violation of the other's right that does the job (i.e. the damage inflicted), but the act which inflicts the damage has two independent effects: it stops his violation of your right and (incidentally) does him harm. Thus, if he ducks your punch but becomes frightened and runs away, your act achieved the good effect without the bad one; if you pull the trigger and the gun misses, but he "sees that you mean it" and runs away, you achieved the good without the bad. Even if you shoot him, he ordinarily would die considerably after he stopped attacking you--which shows that it isn't the death that stopped the attack. The point is that the good effect does not depend on the harm done to the violator.

4. You can't want or intend the harm that your act does. That is, you can't use this as an excuse for "getting even." The violator has rights, even if he's violating yours; and if you "get even," then that's precisely what you're doing: you're making yourself the same as he is: a violator of rights--and so you "deserve" just what he "deserves." There isn't any question of "deserving" the harm, and you must not intend it.

5. If the harm done to the violator is foreseen to be no greater than the harm done to you by his violating your right, then you can take the action. If the harm done to him is greater than the harm he is doing, then the act is in effect more wrong than right, and you can't avoid intending to harm him.

Thus, you can't shoot a person for stepping on your toes; but you can shoot him if you think he might kill you.

Of course, you don't necessarily have to defend your right; even in the case of inalienable rights, the double effect would allow you to turn the above argument around and choose the protection of the violator instead of your own.

[See also Modes, 6.1.5]

8.2.5. Coercion

So it is possible to use force to defend a While we are on the subject, let us see if we can straighten out whether there is any other occasion when force can be used against another person, and in what senses a person can be said to be "forced" by another.

The obvious meaning of "force" is physical violence: that is, some act that inflicts physical damage on the victim. This physical damage will sometimes physically stop a person from performing a given act, and (as in defending a right), this is sometimes all that is intended.

Ordinarily, however, even the use of physical violence is intended to have a moral effect: that is, it is the threat of the violence, or of a repetition of the actual violence, that is supposed to motivate the recipient either to do what is desired or to avoid what is undesired.

Hence, what is really meant in most cases by "force" is "a threat": that is, something creating fear of harm.

But by extension, a person can be said to be "forced" to do something, not by the threat of actual physical violence against his person, but by depriving him of something he values. For instance, the threat to tow an illegally parked car, could be (and is, in fact) considered a way to force people not to park illegally.

But a person can also be "forced" to do something by withholding something he wants very much or needs. Thus, the threat to Johnny to send him to bed without supper is interpreted by Johnny to be forcing him to clean up his room; the threat to cut off the heating oil is a way of forcing a delinquent customer to pay his bill, and so on.

What all of these have in common is that they are ways in which one person can make it likely that another person will do what that other person does not want to do. They "make" a person "act against his will."

Now of course, the person does not, technically speaking, act against his will (except in the one case where he is knocked out and can't do what he intended). The idea is that the threat gives the person a reason which is so much greater than the reasons for acting in the undesired way that "he is left no choice"--no reasonable choice.

Obviously, this is an interference with another person's self-determination. But, as we saw, it does not follow from the fact that a person is self-determining that he has a right never to have his self-determination interfered with; hence, it does not follow that the only time force can be used is in defense of a right.

There are two things to note here:

First of all, force has to give the impression that the person is worse off for its application, not that he is better off because of it.

It may take the form of withholding something the person wants; but it isn't force unless the person somehow considers himself deprived by not having it.

That is, "making someone an offer he can't refuse" is not a use of force as long as the person considers himself better off for accepting it and not, somehow, in a deprived condition if he refuses it. Thus, to offer a person a million dollars to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge is not forcing him to do it--it might be tempting him, but it isn't a use of force, since if he refuses, he's still as well off as before.

Nevertheless, offering a starving person food if he does something you want would be a use of force, because if he doesn't accept it, he is in a less-than-human condition.

The distinction is subtle, but very important.

Secondly, there is nothing in human nature that demands that force be used only in response to force--i.e. that a person never initiate force against another.

DEFINITION: coercion is the use of force in such a way that it violates a right of another person.

That is, the use of force is coercion if the threat makes it unreasonable for a person to do what he has a right to do, or unreasonable not to do what he has a right to avoid doing.

Thus, if a person is told "If you vote, we're going to burn your house and beat up your wife," then this is coercion; because any reasonable person would believe that it would be grossly disadvantageous for him to exercise his right.

Notice, however, that it is not necessarily coercion if a person is told that unless he shaves off his new beard, he will be fired--even if the firing would deprive him of the necessities of life; and the reason is that a man has no right to grow a beard; he is not dehumanized if he is clean-shaven.

In this case, you might be able to say that the person is being forced to shave; but he is not, in this definition, being coerced to do so, because no right of his is violated. Of course, we have to assume here that there is a reason for denying the person his beard (such as customer relations, or good order), or we run up against that generic right of a self-determining being to do what he pleases with himself.

Note that coercion can also involve withholding from a person something necessary for his life (i.e. something he has a right to have), and is not confined to threats of harm.

Withholding necessities is one form of dehumanization, which we will discuss shortly. But let me now give a fairly controversial example.

Suppose a person is told by his doctor that unless he pays sixty thousand dollars, he will not be able to have the operation necessary to save his life. He is being coerced into paying the sixty thousand. The reason is that if he doesn't, he dies; and so the withholding of the service in this case is the same as the threat to kill the patient.

Of course, this supposes that the patient has the right against doctors to receive treatment; otherwise, he is being forced to pay, but not coerced. Without going into the matter, the right comes from the fact the profession of medicine is that of providing health care; and when a doctor enters the profession, he dedicates himself to this, and thus makes himself the one against whom the unhealthy have a claim to their right not to live dehumanized lives because they are sick.

This does not necessarily mean that doctors have to give free health care (because their service gives them a right against the patient to compensation); but the balancing of the two rights is tricky, and is one of the things that conventional economics (whether Capitalistic or Marxist) can't handle.

[See also Modes, 6.1.5]

8.2.6 Dehumanization

We spoke a little earlier of "dehumanizing" a person, and said that we would have to clarify this concept.

In general, dehumanization is coercion: either forcing a person to do what he has a human right not to do, or preventing him from doing something he has a human right to do.

But what are the human rights a person has, and how do we know them in practice?

As we said in section 2.1.1., the "nature" of something is its reality as related to or revealed in its actions. What is behind this is that a thing behaves in a certain way because it has certain definite parts organized in a definite way; without these parts and this type of organization, it couldn't behave in the way in question. So we learn what it is to be human ("human nature") by observing human activities, and concluding "humans are the kinds of thing that do X and Y and Z..."

The reason for knowing what the reality is from the acts is that we can't directly observe the act that organizes the body (which is what makes the body human); but it is this act which makes the body capable of doing human acts (as opposed to those of a hummingbird).

A caution should be mentioned here, however. The behavior is a sufficient condition for knowing what the nature is, but not a necessary one. That is, if something is conversing, you know that it must be human (or at least intellectual); but if a human being is asleep and not doing "human" acts, it does not follow that he has lost his humanity. The reason for this is that a living being (with excess energy within it) can express or not express its acts spontaneously; hence, it has the nature when it is capable of doing so, whether it is actually doing the act or not. But clearly, if it is doing the act, it is capable of doing it.

It follows from this that

If a given human being cannot do what practically all other human beings can do, he is in a dehumanized condition.

For example, if someone cannot see, he is subject to the following reasoning process. "Human beings can see because they are human (why else do we have eyes?); but he cannot see; therefore, in that respect, he is less than human." Hence, he is a human being who cannot do what human beings can do as such; and this contradiction is being in a dehumanized condition. We would say in this case that there is something "wrong" with his nature (because we would expect him, as human, to see if he wanted to); or that his nature (because of a defect in the organ itself, not in the fundamental organization of the body) is "defective."

Note that we say that he has a human nature because of all the other respects in which he can act as only human beings can act; and so the defect is rather in the part which is organized than in the organizing activity (which is where his humanity actually lies). Still, as a human being, he can do less than human beings can do; and hence he is in that contradictory position of being a "human-being-who-is-not-quite-human."

That is, when we say that "there's something wrong with him," we are saying that his nature doesn't really fit with human nature as we know it from observing the humans around us; he is more limited than we (reasonably) expect human beings to be.

But since our ability to act can be restricted by others' forcing us not to do the things we have the natural capacity of doing, then in practice they are forcing us into the condition of having human natures that can't express themselves as human--or into a self-contradictory position analogous to having a defective organ.

DEFINITION: absolute dehumanization is forcing a person into a condition in which he cannot do what "practically all" people in any culture can do.

Since in practice we get the notion of "human nature" from observing what people do and arguing that "then this is what human beings can do by nature," it follows that what "practically everyone" can do is what belongs to human nature to be able to do. Thus, if a person is forced into a position of not being able to see or walk, the act he can't do would be regarded as an act belonging to a human being as such by anyone from any culture. Laming someone would be dehumanizing him, because humans in any culture are considered able to walk just because they are human.

DEFINITION: relative dehumanization is forcing a person into a condition in which he cannot do what "practically all" humans in his culture can do.

But since human nature is derived from observation, it also follows that "practically all" in practice will mean "the people around us." Hence, we will get a notion of "human" that is culturally dependent.

In this case, a person can be dehumanized by being prevented from doing what in some other culture would be regarded as a superfluous or even luxurious act. For instance, since in our culture "everyone" has a telephone, for a person to be so poor that he can't afford to have one would be dehumanizing, while in India, having a telephone would perhaps be considered a luxury.

Note that this does not necessarily mean that in order to be human you have to have a telephone in our culture, because humans are self-determining, and if they don't want one, they are not obliged to "fulfill" themselves in this way; so if a person freely chooses not to have a phone, we consider him eccentric, not dehumanized. The dehumanization would come in a person's being coerced into a position of not being able to have one if he wanted.

Some sort of qualification is necessary, however, in talking of relative dehumanization in an affluent society. A person might not be able to do what "practically everyone else" can do, and yet this might not really force him below a human existence in a reasonable sense of the term. For instance, if "practically everyone" can afford Adidas jogging shoes and videotape recorders, it still does not mean that the young lad who has to make do with K-Mart joggers and his hundred-dollar ghetto blaster is leading a humanly deprived life.

Just as there is a minimum which is dehumanization in any society, there is a level at which relative dehumanization ceases to be dehumanizing. Where this level is is not easy to define, by any means; but it has something to do with a person's being able not only to survive, but to set goals for himself and pursue them. When people can do this, even with restrictions, then they are living human lives; it is when all their attention must be devoted to staying alive and not to defining themselves in some distinctive way that they are dehumanized.

[See also Modes, 4.7.3]

8.2.7. Inalienable rights

It is possible, then, for a person to be coerced into doing something he has a right not to do. Can a person freely give up a right he has, or is it the case that, once he has a right, he always has it?

It seems obvious that at least some rights can be given up. If I have a right to do what I please with this computer I own, and I sell it to someone else, I lose the right to do anything with it. If I have a driver's license, I can let it lapse and not renew it, and so lose the right to drive.

DEFINITION: A right is alienable if it can be given up. (This is sometimes spelled "unalienable.")

DEFINITION: A right is absolutely inalienable if it cannot be given up.

DEFINITION: A right is relatively inalienable if it can be given up, but cannot be taken away by government (i.e. civil society).

Rights implied by some corresponding moral obligation are absolutely inalienable. The reason is that, since we can't get rid of the moral obligation, we can't get rid of the rights to the means to fulfill it. Thus, the right to life is absolutely inalienable, because we have an obligation as living beings not to commit suicide, and so can never choose to let anyone else kill us.

Nevertheless, there are some human rights we have that are not simply the means to fulfill the moral obligation; and these may be given up by us; but they cannot be taken away by civil society.

For instance, our nature as sexual gives us the human right to get married (because only in marriage can we exercise the sexual faculty consistently, and so if we couldn't get married, we would have a faculty which we couldn't exercise: a contradiction). Nevertheless, a person doesn't have to get married, because a faculty is a power, not a necessity, and self-determination implies that we don't have to exercise all the powers we have. Hence, a person may even (by a vow of celibacy, for instance) give up his right to get married.

Freely joined organizations can even make such a vow a condition of membership, because a person does not have to join them, and so is not coerced into not marrying.

But a person (as we will see in the next chapter) cannot avoid belonging to civil society; and so if civil society imposes celibacy on him, it is coercing him. Thus, the right to marry is relatively inalienable. The only way civil society could force a person not to marry would be in a situation of protecting the citizens, so that the violation of the right would not be chosen, by means of the Double Effect.

Note that all human rights are at least relatively inalienable.

The reason is that if civil society forces a person to give them up, the situation above obtains; the person would have to act as if he didn't have a right he had, because he can't not belong to civil society. This is why all human rights have to be made into civil rights.

[See also Modes, 6.1.6]

8.3. When a human being is a person

There is one question we have still to clear up before we get into the specific human rights that people have: Do human beings acquire personhood, or do they have it all the time that they are human? It is at least thinkable that, since persons are self-determining, then you are a person only when you can determine yourself; and so humans at the very beginning (and possibly when unconscious at the very end) of life might not be persons.

Some hold that a person doesn't exist until he has been "accepted by the community" in some way. But this would mean that a human being (of whatever age) would have no rights unless the "community" chose to grant them to him. We fought a civil war over this. And the position is in fact ridiculous, since this would mean that beings who were in fact self-determining (like the Black slaves) would be able to have their natures as such contradicted simply because other people didn't recognize or choose to recognize that they were anything but animals. Rights that are given by the "community" are no rights. We have rights against the community, if the community is violating our nature.

Others hold that a being who "cannot" determine himself is not a person and therefore does not have rights; and so they conclude that, even if fetuses are human beings, they are not persons and have no rights; and humans in "irreversible" comas are no longer persons and no longer have rights.

But the logic of this position would mean that when we fall asleep, we would lose our personhood and our rights, because a sleeping person is certainly not determining himself (choosing), and in fact cannot choose while asleep. Clearly, this sense of "cannot" is not what excludes someone from personhood; you would lose your right to life as soon as you fell asleep if this were the case.

But perhaps "cannot" means the sense in which a person in a coma "cannot" make choices and determine himself; a sleeping person can wake up, but a comatose human can't. But (a) if the comatose human recovers from his coma, does this mean that he lost his personhood for a while and then got it back? If so, in what real sense is he different from a sleeping person? After all, this is no joke; if someone loses personhood, this gives others permission to kill him, take away what he owns, cut up his body, etc. Or (b) if a comatose human is not a person, what about a person who has just been knocked unconscious for a few minutes? Then you could make someone lose his personhood by giving him and anesthetic or knocking him on the head. For practical purposes, such people are indistinguishable from comatose human beings; so if comatose humans are not people, they aren't either.

This has been recognized by some who hold this position, but they say that only those in "irreversible" comas lose their personhood. The trouble with that is that they only way you know that the coma is "irreversible" is that the human being dies while still in the coma; there is no difference in itself between a "reversible" and an "irreversible" coma. Hence, this is a distinction without a difference.

In fact, since obviously people who are asleep or who are under anesthesia are still "self-determining," then it must be the case that the ability to determine oneself is the fundamental ability one has because of the way the body is organized.

That is, a person is a self-determining kind of thing, whether he is actually determining himself or not, or whether he is in a condition to determine himself or not. If this is not admitted, it would be difficult to see how the personhood of sleepers could be logically held.

But since the human form of organization of the body is basically a self-determining kind of organization, it follows that

A human being is a person as long as the body is organized in a human way.

All human beings are persons, then, as long as they are human beings. There may be persons that are not human (and in fact there is at least one: God); but all humans are persons.

[See also Modes, 3.4 for an extended discussion of personhood.]

8.4. Exercising rights

Finally, let us consider the question of whether we have to exercise the rights we have. I have already given the answer to this by implication when I discussed the question of giving up a right. It would certainly seem to follow that if you can give up a right altogether, then you don't have to exercise it when you have it.

And, of course, since a right is a power that belongs to us because of our self-determination, it is like a moral kind of "faculty," which gives us control of ourselves; and therefore, we don't have to exercise it if we don't want to.

This is why "rights" are often equated with "freedoms." They are, in fact, "freedom" in the sense of "liberty": no one is to interfere with your doing or not doing the act in question.

They are not, however, quite the same as freedoms, because, of course, you must exercise a right that is implied by some obligation you have. This is not because it is a right, but because of the obligation itself; it is a right because no one is to prevent your fulfilling the obligation; but it is not a "freedom," because you have to fulfill the obligation. Thus, you must exercise your right to life, because you are forbidden to kill yourself; parents must exercise their right to educate their children; and so on. But you don't have to exercise your civil right to vote (in the United States, at least) because it is a simple right, and not one implied by a command to vote (as exists in some countries). Thus, you also have the freedom to vote or not vote.

If you are being coerced into not exercising a right, then you may refuse to exercise it only if the Double Effect applies.

The reason for this is that if someone (as, for example, the government by an unjust law) is preventing you from doing something you have a right to do, then to go along with this force is to act as if you don't have a right that in fact you have.

Let us apply the rules:

1) The act of going along with what you are being forced to do must not be a violation of some obligation you have.

That is, if the right you are being forced not to exercise is a right implied by an obligation, then it would be morally wrong not to exercise the right, because in so doing you are violating the obligation you have.

You must always resist coercion when it forces you into doing something morally wrong.

Supposing that not to be the case, however, and the right that is being violated is one that you don't have to exercise, then 2) the act must have a good effect of avoiding the harm that is threatened if you exercise the right. Note that the act of going along with the violation can not only have a bad effect on yourself, but your action can also have an effect on others, because it encourages the violators to try to deprive others and discourages others from resisting the violation. 3) In general, the wrong effect of acting or giving the impression you don't have a right you have is not the means to avoiding the harm. Avoiding the act forbidden avoids the threat; the effect of your denying your right is independent of this. 4) You would also not be trying to deny that you have the right in question. And 5) going along with the coercion must not be worse than what would happen if you asserted your right. Here the additional bad effect on others must be taken into account.

Thus, for instance, if a mobster asks you to pay "protection" in order to keep your store open, with the threat that if you resist, your store will be bombed, you don't necessarily have to resist this violation of your rights. If it seems to you that going to the police will only make matters worse, then you may pay the money extorted from you, realizing that your paying will mean that the people around you will also have to pay.

If there is reasonable hope that taking action will work, it may be morally necessary to take that action, however; because otherwise you and others will continue to have your rights violated, and in the long run this will be worse that what would happen to you in breaking up the extortion ring.

Obviously not an easy question to decide. But the point is that you don't have to resist violations of your rights when nothing beneficial will come of it; and you may even have an obligation not to resist when resistance will only make matters worse.

This will suffice for a consideration of rights in general. We will discuss the basic human rights in the next chapter.

Summary of Chapter 8

There are two ways people relate to each other: the economic relationship, involving rights and compensation, and the social relationship, involving cooperation and sanctions.

Rights are moral powers to do certain acts; "moral" in the sense that it is not morally wrong to do them, and it is morally wrong for anyone else to prevent one from doing them. The general basis of rights is personhood, not equality. A person is a self-determining being who can have his self-determination interfered with by another person's acts. It is inconsistent with a person to determine himself in such a way that he prevents another person from determining himself. It follows that no one has a right to do anything that violates anyone else's right, that only persons have rights, and that non-existent beings, like future generations, do not have rights. If we have obligations to these beings, they are not because the beings have rights against us.

A specific right can be claimed only when a person can show that interference contradicts his present state, not what he would like to be. The reason is that if we could not be prevented from doing what we wanted to do, then people would not be able to act at all, since their acts would inevitably be keeping others from doing what they wanted--and rights are supposed to make it possible for us to act. The title to a right is the aspect of the person's reality which is contradicted by the violation.

Different titles define the different kinds of rights. Human rights have as their title the humanity we all have; civil rights the fact that we are citizens of a given country. Acquired rights involve doing something to get them; contractual rights are acquired by means of an agreement. Implied rights are those that follow from some obligation we have. We don't have rights because we think we have them; they depend on our reality, not our "sincere beliefs."

We have a right against those persons who in practice can violate it. Defining the person against whom we have the right is most important in the case of rights to be given help in doing something.

Rights can be defended using the Double Effect, not choosing the violator's harm. The theory that the violator "forfeits his right" by his act of violation does not stand up to scrutiny. Hence, the harm to the violator (the violation of his right) must be kept from the choice; and this means that the defense can only be undertaken when some action is done toward the violation (not on a mere threat). The act and intention must be that of blocking the violation, with the damage done to the violator not being the means of protecting the right, the damage not being wanted but an unfortunate side-effect, and the damage done to the violator not greater than that he would be inflicting on the protector.

Force is very often moral force: the threat of harm rather than the harm itself; it implies that the person is worse off than now if the threat is carried out. Promise of a reward is not force. Force can sometimes be morally used if there is no violation of a right on the part of the person forced; force is coercion if it violates some right of the coerced person. Coercion can take the form of withholding something necessary from the person.

In general, coercion is dehumanization. Since human nature is discovered from observing the acts of human beings, then if a person is prevented from doing what "practically all" people (or people in a given culture) can do, he is dehumanized (absolutely or relatively).

Rights are alienable if they can be given up; they are absolutely inalienable if it is immoral to give them up, and relatively inalienable if they can be given up but cannot be taken away by government. Rights implied by the moral obligation are absolutely inalienable. All human rights are at least relatively inalienable.

A human being is a person when his body is organized in such a way that he is a self-determining kind of thing; but this means that whenever a body is organized in a human way, that body is a person, whether he can actually exercise his self determination or not. Hence, sleeping people and people in comas are persons.

You need not exercise any right you have, unless that right is a right implied by some obligation you have. If coercion forces you not to exercise a right you must exercise (because of the moral obligation), then you must resist coercion. If it forces you not to exercise some other right, you can use the Double Effect.

Exercises and questions for discussion

NOTE: These questions are to be answered on moral grounds, not legal ones. We are not interested in what the law is here.

1. Do firms have an obligation not to pollute the environment? If so what is the basis of it? Are rights involved, and if so what are their titles?

2. Does giving someone extra pay for the mere fact that he has worked longer at the job constitute discrimination that violates anyone's right or not?

3. If a person is prevented from getting a job because someone else (qualified, but less qualified) is hired because he is a racial minority, does this "reverse discrimination" violate any right of the person not hired? What would be his title to such a right, if so?

4. Does a person who has already been hired for a job have a right not to be arbitrarily fired just because the employer wants to fire him, or is the contract entered into such that it implies that the employer has to have a reason for firing him? Does this have to be spelled out in the contract beforehand? If he can't be fired, what is his title to this right to keep his job? If the employer can fire him, what is his title to the right to do so?

5. On the assumption that a fetus is a human being and not a "part of the mother's body," does a woman have a right to take a job that would be hazardous to her fetus's health if she becomes pregnant, and does the company have a right not to allow women of child-bearing age to take such a job?