9.1. The right to life

Our object in this chapter is to discuss the major rights we have as humans: under what conditions we have them, against whom, how we can defend them, and so on.

The most basic of our human rights, of course, is the right to life, since if we can't exercise this right, we can't exercise any other one. It is clear that each of us can claim a right to life, because, as we saw two chapters ago, we are morally forbidden to choose to die; and so the right to life is a right implied by this obligation not to kill oneself.

Since the right to life follows from the moral obligation, it is absolute.

That is, to choose to kill another person against the other person's will would violate the other's self-determination, and to choose to do so because asked by the other would be to cooperate in the other's immorality, and so make oneself also responsible for it.

Note that the "absoluteness" of the obligation to respect the right to life of others has nothing to do with life's being "the supreme value" or the "greatest good." In fact, it might not be, in a given person's value system; and this person's value system is as valid as anyone else's, because values have a subjective component.

In fact, to call life a "value" invites comparison with other values and "goods," and undermines the absoluteness of the right to life. It is not because life happens to be the "greatest good" or death the "greatest evil" that we must not choose to kill anyone, but simply that this is to arrogate to ourselves control over what by nature we do not have control over.

As we saw, no human being has control over the fact that he is alive; and so it is not "his life" in the sense that if he asks you to kill him, you are simply doing what he wants and not being immoral; because it is known that he cannot morally want to die. Hence, you are not "respecting" the person's "right" if you kill him when he asks you to do so.

It is therefore always immoral to choose the death of any person.

Note this carefully: it is immoral to choose the death. This seems to indicate that there are situations when the Double Effect would apply, and you can choose to do something that will kill another person without choosing the death. And, in fact, there are such situations.

Let us go through the five rules: 1) The act must have nothing wrong with it except the fact that it results in the death of the other person. 2) The act must have a good effect (see rule 5). 3) The good effect must not depend on the other person's death (see below). 4) The other's death must not be wanted; and 5) the good effect must be the saving of at least one person's life.

Now to comment on this; first, as to the third rule, there are two ways to find out whether the saving of the life depends on the death or not. It doesn't if, (a) supposing (by some impossible miracle) the death of the person you kill by your act doesn't occur, will the life still be saved? If it will, then the death didn't save the life. (b)If the death actually occurs after the life is saved, then it wasn't the death that saved the life.

So, for instance, when you shoot a person who is attacking you with a knife, and you shoot to kill, because you aren't skilled enough to be able to shoot the knife out of his hand, then it could happen that you would miss and he would run away, which saves your life, or even if you shoot him and he dies, he ordinarily does not die instantaneously, and your life is saved the instant his attack stops. He might die weeks later; so obviously his death did not save you.

I stress this, which I mentioned before in defending a right, because some ethicians have held that shooting someone is "direct killing" and the death cannot be kept out of the choice. The idea behind this is that the time-lag between your pulling the trigger and the bullet's entering the other person is so short that it forms part of one action in practice; and so it is a sophism to divorce the "act" of pulling the trigger from what the bullet does. This would make the act an act of killing, and would violate the first rule.

I might grant that the act is an act of shooting, but even shooting at a vital area does not of itself kill a person; the bullet could be deflected by a rib and not in fact penetrate a vital organ. Hence, the death is an effect of the act unless the death is one of the desired outcomes; and I submit that in self-defense it is not and need not be. And since the death might not occur at all, or might occur significantly later, even with this so-called "act of killing," it is not in this case direct killing, because the death is not part of the choice.

This will become important later. The ethicians who hold "direct killing" also hold that unjust aggressors lose their right to life (or the exercise of it), which I do not think makes sense. If (a) you lose the exercise of your right to life, then you lose the right; it makes no sense to have a power which you have no power to use. And (b) if you lose the right, then it isn't a right you have by nature, but a right you have because you are good; but we are living beings by nature, not because of our virtuous acts.

Now as to the fifth rule, why only a life, if there are things worse than death? Because, though there may be things that you consider worse than death, you cannot apply this set of values to another person (since values have a subjective element). Hence, in order for the act which results in a death not to be worse than the alternative, the alternative must also be a death.

In other words, you can do something which will kill someone, but only in order to save a life. You can't do it to save your sanity, to save twenty million dollars, to save your eyes, or for any other purpose.

Note, however, that numbers of deaths do not figure into which alternative is worse, unless the discrepancy is great.

The reason for this is that the right to life is absolute, and is NOT a "value" to be compared to other values. Hence, what we are doing is protecting an absolute right, not "achieving the greater good." The point is whether the others' deaths can be kept out of the choice, so that all you intend is the protection of the saved person's life, not whether the life is being defended against one, two, three, or ten attackers.

But of course, if saving a person's life means wiping out a whole cityfull of people, there comes a point at which those other deaths are also chosen. Where that point occurs is up to each person's conscience; but it would be the rare person who could, like some Rambo, gun down everyone he sees and say "All I was trying to do was to protect my kid," and mean it.

But it would be absurd on the other side to say that if two hoodlums were attacking my child, I would have to let them kill her, because otherwise two people would die instead of one. Lives are not quantifiable in this way.

[On this and all life issues, see also The Evidence on Life Issues in Brief and Modes, 6.1.7]

9.1.1. Abortion

Given that, and given what we said in the previous chapter that a human being is a person (with a right to life) as long as he is a human being, we can try to tackle the abortion question. From what was said, it should be obvious that

If a human embryo or fetus is a human being, then the only grounds on which a woman could have an abortion would be to save her life.

That is, if the human embryo or fetus is a human being, then rape, incest, defectiveness, the sanity of the mother, and all other grounds for abortion are ruled out. You can't have an abortion for these reasons any more than you could kill an infant (or a five-year-old or an adult, for that matter) for these reasons.

So the abortion question is really one of fact: Is the embryo or fetus a human being or not? Clearly, it is "human" in the sense that the cells have human genes, just as the cells of the heart have human genes. But the heart is not a human being; and so it does not automatically follow that the embryo or fetus is.

Let us examine the facts systematically.

1. The embryo or fetus is not part of the mother's body. The parts of a body function for the sake of the whole, which is the unit which "really" acts, as we saw. But this would mean that parts do not naturally act against the whole organism. Yet the embryo normally causes "morning sickness," which is severe discomfort and often inability to act; the embryo and fetus will take nutrients (such as calcium) from the mother and develop normally even at the expense of the mother; and in Rh incompatibility of blood, the mother builds up antibodies to the fetus's blood; but no organism builds up antibodies to itself. Hence, the embryo or fetus is a distinct organism from the mother. It is no more part of the mother's body than a tapeworm would be. And, in fact, at the very beginning, the embryo is not even attached to the mother, and is living for a short time totally on its own.

2. The embryo from the beginning is a single organism, not a "mass of tissue." Some have argued that, since in the very early stages, splitting of the mass of cells produces twins, then the mass is not a unit at this stage, but is like a tissue culture of human cells, which are living, but are not living human beings. (It would be absurd to say that human skin kept alive is a human being because it is living human cells; it remains nothing but skin.)

The counter-argument against twinning is (a) that other organisms which are clearly units are capable of producing "twins" when parts are removed, such as cuttings of geraniums. No one would say that the geranium is a "colony" of branches simply because after removal, the branch can become a complete plant. Further (b) the mass is developing as a whole into what is very quickly recognizable as a unit of distinct parts; if there were not some unifying control, then how only the right number of organs of the right type got formed from these "independent" cells would make no sense.

3. The fetus is not an organism in a "pre-human" condition, with a different nature. A caterpillar has the same genes as the butterfly it will become; but it has totally different body parts, different metabolism, and in general different behavior. Thus, it has (though it is of the same species) a different nature from the butterfly, and is not in reality a butterfly. Hence, it is not enough to argue that, since the embryo or fetus is a distinct organism with human genes, it automatically has human nature.

But the caterpillar's organs are adapted to its life as a caterpillar, as the butterfly's are to its different life as a butterfly. Yet from the very beginning, the embryo develops organs that make no sense for its life in the uterus, but only are adapted for life outside. One of the very first organs to appear is the eyes, which have nothing really to see until emergence from the uterus. All of the organs, in fact, except the umbilical cord, are organs which are adapted to the life outside the uterus; and hence the basic organization of the embryo right from the beginning (the act that builds the organs themselves) is the same as the organization of the adult. Otherwise, why would it build these organs? Therefore, the human embryo or fetus right from the beginning has human nature.

Therefore, from the moment at which the ovum is reorganized at fertilization, the embryo or fetus is a human being, and is therefore a human person, and therefore has a right to life, and consequently nothing can be done to kill it except, using the Double Effect, to save the mother's life.

Some have argued that, since the fetus is innocent, it isn't ever an unjust aggressor, and hence abortions (which are direct killings) cannot even be performed to save the mother's life. Note that not having an abortion under these conditions means that the fetus will die along with the mother; but the argument is that these deaths are not chosen.

My reply is as above. It is not the death of the fetus which saves the mother's life, but the removal. The fact that fetuses are not necessarily dead at the moment of removal (in fact some have survived abortions) indicates that abortions are not achieved by the death. Secondly, if the fetus's presence in the mother is (because of weak kidneys or for any other reason) going to result in her death, the fetus is in fact attacking the mother's life, and is not "materially innocent," however unintentional the attack may be. The fetus is analogous to a madman running around with a knife; he isn't guilty, because he doesn't know what he's doing; but that doesn't mean you can't defend yourself against him.

Even in the "classic" case of the baby's head being lodged in the mother's pelvis, which will cause death if the head is not crushed and brought through, this is not actually "direct killing," though it has been called such. Babies' heads are such that some "crushing"naturally occurs on delivery (with the bones sliding over each other); and it should be obvious that, if the crushing happens not to be fatal to the baby, the mother will be saved; hence, it is not the death of the baby that saves the mother, but making its head smaller, which will result in its death. Further, this lodging of the head in the pelvis is also in fact an attack on the mother's life, and so the baby in this case is (however unintentionally) an aggressor.

Hence, abortions may be done to save the mother's life, but for nothing short of this.

And since the embryo or fetus is a human being and a person, then it follows that

When abortions are necessary, the method of abortion that does the least damage to both parties is to be employed.

Currently, the method of abortion is determined solely by what causes least discomfort and damage to the mother. But these are incredibly brutal ways of killing someone: either his skin is burned off (by saline injection--acid, in other words), or he is pulled to pieces alive.

Obviously a Caesarean section of some sort (which of course is more dangerous to the mother) or the use of some anesthetic so that pain is not felt--yes, fetuses can feel pain--is preferable to the horrors that we now see. Perhaps removal of the uterus itself would be least damaging to the fetus, who could then die in peace. And if this were the method of abortion, then women would perhaps be less quick to say, "My life is in danger! Get rid of the thing!"

Let me finish up this section on abortion with another remark. There are some feminists who are so wedded to the notion of "choice" that all the arguments in the world that the fetus is a human being won't convince them. This is all the more true because it means that if a person has had an abortion, she has slaughtered her own child; and this, needless to say, is something no one wants to face about herself. Given the fact that over a million and a half mothers a year do this sort of thing, this makes for formidable opposition to reason.

But beware of people who say, "I'm not pro-abortion; I'm pro-choice. I don't approve of abortions, but I don't think women should be forced back into the dangerous back-alley abortions when they were illegal."

I don't notice such people agitating to have prostitution legalized. After all, isn't the decision whether to take money to have sex a woman's choice what to do with her own body? And whose business is it but hers? And because prostitution is illegal, many women face arrest, disgrace, disease, and even beating to death.

The point, of course, is that the argument is exactly the same in both cases. Why then are the feminists not agitating to repeal the prostitution laws? The answer is rather simple, actually. Middle-class women can picture themselves getting accidentally pregnant and therefore "needing" an abortion, but they cannot picture themselves selling their sexual activity to others. And it is the middle-class women who are the agitators on the abortion issue. It sounds very much as if they are agitating, not really because of the principle of freedom of choice for women, but because they are pro-abortion. That is, anyone who says that he is "pro choice" and not pro abortion and then is in favor of anti-prostitution laws is either disingenuous or has been duped by pro-abortion rhetoric.

I put this here not just to engage in nastiness and retort against the feminists, but because they have convinced many well-intentioned men and women that the principle of individual freedom is paramount, and even overrides considerations of life and death. Don't be misled by such arguments. You don't believe in such unrestricted freedom of choice, and neither do the "pro choice" advocates. No one does.

9.1.2. The end of life

Now let us look at the other end of life. You can't kill a human being; but sometimes you can save a person's life by using a vital organ like a heart from someone else--yet to take a heart out of a living human is to kill him. On the other hand, if you wait too long and take it from a corpse, the heart will have begun to decay; and it is fatal to put a decaying heart into a sick person.

Hence, it is imperative to know whether we can be morally certain a person has died, so that we can remove organs while they are still fresh from what is now a corpse.

Obviously, death occurs when the body ceases to be organized as a human unit; when the parts cease to function together so that it is the whole which acts. But when does this occur? Since this organizing activity is what the parts are doing to each other (and which rejects anything but parts of the body as "foreign,") then it is clear that you can't get an instrument inside the body to observe it (it would be rejected) and find out when it stopped functioning. Hence, its stopping must be argued to.

Since the organizing activity of the body maintains the body at an energy level which is unnaturally high for it as a system of chemicals, it follows that when the body begins to decay (meaning that its chemicals are seeking their lowest energy-states) it is no longer being organized as a living unit.

That is, decay is a sign of death. Decay of a single part which has been cut off from the rest of the body (as in gangrene) is not a sign of death, except perhaps for that part; but when the decay occurs in the body as a whole, then it is a corpse.

Now the first organ to decay is the brain; and since the brain is necessary for the functioning of the body as a whole, then when the brain begins to decay, the body is not organized as a human being any longer.

The "death" of the brain is not a definition of the death of the human being (as some scientists say); but it is an indication of the death of the whole organism, for the reasons given above.

Recent evidence seems to indicate that the brain begins to decay some ten minutes or so after it has ceased to function; therefore, the person is morally certainly dead within twenty minutes or so after a ceasing of functioning of brain activity. This is "brain death."

With further refinements of science, this time might be narrowed. The point is that there is no evidence to indicate that there is anything but a corpse at this point. Hence, organs may now be removed and preserved for useful purposes.

9.1.3. The dying person

I said three chapters ago that you could choose, if you were dying, not to postpone your own death. Can a person ever make this choice for someone else who is not conscious? The situation is a little tricky, because you are dealing with someone else's life, and you can't impose your values on the other person.

First of all, if it is known that the person would not want his death postponed by life-preserving means, then his wishes must be respected and the means must not be used.

We saw that the choice not to postpone death is not necessarily an immoral choice. Hence, if you cooperate with this choice, you are not cooperating in something morally wrong. Even if the person, in expressing his wishes, seems to have wished to die, this wish may be, and in general must be, interpreted in a morally legitimate sense, as implying, "I've got to die anyway, and if I could be cured I'd take that route; but given that I'm dying, I don't want to prolong the agony." All that can be (and probably is) implicitly contained in "Let's get it over quick." It is not for you to assume that the one whose wishes you are following was being immoral; and since the choice can be a moral one, and since it is his life, then if you know he doesn't want death postponed, you must follow his wishes.

Of course, if you know that he does want his death postponed, then you must also respect his wishes, and use the life-preserving mechanisms.

If the person's will has not been expressed and cannot be known, then (a) if there is reasonable hope of recovery or of regaining the power to choose (even temporarily), these means must be taken; but (b) if nothing is to be gained but prolonged agony and expense, then the life-preserving means may be stopped.

The reason for the first proviso is that the patient is to have the choice if at all possible; and the second is based on the fact that, given no possibility for the patient himself to take control, the path doing least damage may be taken. If the patient should happen to recover and indicate that he would have wanted the life-preserving means to be used, your conscience would still be clear; there was no evidence of this at the time, and it was the less reasonable choice.

What a "reasonable" hope for recovery is will depend on the person's conscience. Most people would consider an even chance or better as "reasonable"; but how far below an even chance you go before it becomes unreasonable to hope for recovery is not something that can be objectively determined.

Of course, it should go without saying that it would be morally wrong to withhold life-maintaining actions of supplying food, water, and air.

A person is not being "allowed to die" when he is starved or smothered to death, as has recently occurred in some cases of defective infants. (In the famous Baby Doe case in Indiana, the infant survived six days without food. This was no dying child.)

9.2. Economic rights

In discussing who we have rights against, I mentioned that sometimes not doing something for a person is the equivalent of doing damage to him; as, for example, in the case above of Baby Doe, not giving the infant food was to starve him to death.

It follows, therefore, that, since each person has a right to life,

Each person has a human right to what is necessary to keep him alive.

This is a very complex issue, and belongs in a treatise of economic and business ethics; but let me make a couple of remarks here, rather than go into extended discussion. First, if all a person can get from his work is the ability to stay alive, then this contradicts the function of work (which is serving others so that you can use the services of others to attain your own goals); he is enslaved to others. Hence, work implies the setting and pursuing of goals, not merely bare necessities. Since a human being is self-determining, he has a right to be assured that he will not be allowed to starve, and can therefore do more by serving others than keep alive.

I should remark here, however, that since a person is a self-determining being, then we don't have any business forcing him to do "what is good for him" in spite of himself. In fact, we have to keep hands off even if he is positively harming himself, if he is doing so knowingly.

If a person is knowingly and freely doing damage to himself, then it is morally wrong to prevent him from doing so, unless someone else is also being harmed by what he is doing.

There is nothing wrong with trying to persuade him to stop what he is doing; but it contradicts the person's self-determining nature if others prevent him against his will from doing what he chooses to himself, even if it is harming himself.

What I am saying is that it is not your prerogative to set goals for another person; and if that other person wants to set self-contradictory goals for himself, then that is one of the implications in being free. You deny his personhood if you prevent him from doing this.

This, of course, is the grounds on which the "pro choice" people defend the right to abortion. The problem is that this applies only when no one else's right is involved; and whether they want to admit or not, abortion is not simply "doing what you choose with your own body"; there is another person who is inside that body, and who will be killed by the woman's action. But in cases where no one else is harmed, the "pro choice" position is in fact the correct one.

It follows, however, from this that

If a person can gain the necessities of life plus a minimal amount more by working and he refuses to work, no one has an obligation to give him life's necessities.

That is, if there are jobs available, and the person considers them too arduous or beneath his "dignity," and would rather starve than perform them, he must be allowed to starve.

This sounds harsh and cruel, but it is not even anti-Christian. In a little-quoted passage of St. Paul's second letter to the Thessalonians, he says this, "And while we were there, we told you that if a person did not want to work, he was not to be fed." We not only have no obligation to feed the lazy, we are denying their personhood if we allow them to get by with doing nothing.

But on the assumption that a person can't get by his own efforts the necessities of life plus at least enough so that he can have some self-determination in practice, he must be given what he needs to live a human life.

Now against whom does a person have this right to be given the bare necessities of life? As we will see in the next chapter, civil society exists to see to it that its members do not have their rights violated; and so

A person has the right against civil society for the minimum necessities of life.

But if civil society gives a person more than enough to keep him alive, then the person will also take this as something he has a right to by nature (which is false) and doesn't have to work for; and this creates a disincentive to set goals and try to achieve them, and thus contradicts self-determination.

Hence, it is morally wrong for civil society to provide more than the bare necessities of life for its citizens; the "welfare state" is a wrong kind of society, even if all citizens live in prosperity.

Parents or private organizations can morally provide for people more than what is barely necessary for survival, because this is then recognized as a gift, and not something a person has a right to by nature. But since no one has a right to more than that without which he is dehumanized, civil society has to stop at the bare necessities.

In general, a person goes beyond bare necessities, as I said, by working (i.e. serving others for compensation).


A person has a human right to the opportunity to work.

This does not mean that a person has a human right to work at the kind of job he finds fulfilling. Work is essentially service to others, and hence, one's own fulfillment is not the primary function of the work as such; the compensation for it is supposed to be what allows the person to pursue his goals.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with work that is also fulfilling to the worker; the point is that it does not contradict its nature if it is not fulfilling, and even if it is drudgery, as long as payment allowing a person to set and pursue goals is given.

9.2.1. "Rights" we don't have

Here, I think, is a place to put one or two things that people think are human rights, but actually aren't. They are based on the false notion that rights come from "equality," instead of the fact that we are persons, and from the assumption that "all men are created equal," which is patently false.

All Jefferson meant by "all men are created equal" is that there are no natural classes, such that if you are born a noble, you are by "blood" different from a commoner. But he did not intend to deny individual differences in degree of ability to perform human acts, which imply different degrees of humanity or "possession of human nature." We are not equal; some of us can barely do any human acts, and some can do a great many; and these differences are genetic as well as cultural. Our genes impose individual limits on our humanity.

Since we are not in fact equal, we have no human right to equal treatment.

This means that there is nothing morally wrong with one person's being treated in a way vastly better than the other, as long as the second person is not being treated as if he were an animal and not a human being. That is, if Jones has the necessities of life and a job that allows him to pursue some minimal goals, and Smith lives in a mansion and has two Ferraris in his garage, there is nothing morally wrong in this situation. Life has not treated Jones and Smith equally; but this is consistent with the fact that each of us is limited in our humanity.

This is a hard saying, I realize; but the fact is that there is nothing in human nature that will justify a claim to be treated equally with other human beings.

None of us has a right by nature to equality of opportunity.

The "equalists" sometimes get around the obvious fact that we are genetically limited by asserting that we don't necessarily have a right to equal results, but to an equal chance. But this is also absurd. A retarded person by nature has not got the opportunities open to a very intelligent person; a sickly person is by nature cut off from the opportunities of a robust person; and these limitations are genetic, not social. Therefore, there is nothing in our nature which demands equality of opportunity be provided by anyone either.

In fact, to provide equal opportunity for everyone would be unjust. If each person received the same amount of schooling, this would be more than the retarded could handle, and would not be enough to enable the brilliant to make use of their superior talents.

Hence, we have no human right to equality of opportunity.

No one has a human right to be able to pursue whatever goals he chooses for himself.

But doesn't this follow from self-determination? No. We saw in the argument that life goes on after death that no human being can actually achieve all his goals in this life. Hence, we certainly have no human right to success (i.e. goal-achievement) in this life. But what about a right to "the pursuit of happiness"? It would be morally wrong, as I said above, to put a person in a situation where his constant concern about merely staying alive didn't give him a realistic idea that he could set goals for himself; and so it is morally wrong not to be able to pursue any personal goal.

But since goals are to be achieved after death, basically, there is no dehumanization in preventing a persons from pursuing some specific human goal that he sets for himself.

And in fact, this would have to be done. A person with shaking hands might want to be a surgeon; but he would be a menace to any patients he might try to operate on. A retarded person would be a menace as a doctor; and so on. Such people must be prevented from pursuing their goals. But this does them no real damage; since if they set this as a goal and they are prevented from pursuing it, they can still achieve it after they die.

The point is that you have no claim by nature to the means to achieve specific goals you set for yourself. How could you? These goals precisely do not come from your nature, but from your choice. And you only have a human right to what would violate your nature if you didn't have it.

No one has a human right not to be discriminated against.

As long as some other right of yours is not violated, the fact that you are "discriminated against" simply means that someone else has received preferential treatment. But the only reason you could have to claim equal treatment would be if you were by nature equal to the other. And this just isn't so.

Nevertheless, if a whole class of people is being prevented by society as a whole from doing human acts that they as a class are capable of doing,, then their humanity is being contradicted by discrimination.

What do I mean? If no Black person can become a doctor because he is Black, then there is a conspiracy among the people which in effect denies that Blacks are capable of practicing medicine. But this is false; Blacks are just as capable of practicing medicine as White people are. Hence, such a conspiracy falsifies the nature of Black people; and therefore, this kind of discrimination against a class is morally wrong.

No individual Black has a right to become a doctor, just as no individual White does; no individual Black has a right not to have a White person preferred to him, just as no individual White can complain that his nature has been violated if someone handsomer than he receives preferential treatment. But when blacks as a whole are kept out of human endeavors they can perform, then they are being told by the society that they are incapable of what they are in fact capable of; which is a denial of their reality.

Note that preferential treatment of such classes in order to provide opportunity is not morally wrong. The reason is that if you let Blacks into medical school, and exclude even more qualified Whites, then it is not the whole class of Whites that are excluded, but certain individuals. But the individual has no right not to be discriminated against. In other words, "reverse discrimination" is not morally wrong, unless it is against everyone in the other class (as sometimes happens in revolutions, for instance).

Obviously, such preferential treatment must stop as soon as there ceases to be a denial of opportunity based on some irrelevant characteristic such as race, because then the irrelevant characteristic is in practice asserted as giving this class more ability than it actually has.

The whole issue is a complex one; but this is the basic outline of the morality involved.

[See also ]

9.3. The right of ownership

To return now to human rights we do have, it follows from the fact that we can't survive unless we use the material things around us that we have a right to do so. The problem is that if I eat an apple, then you can't eat the apple; so which of us has the right to this apple? And do we have rights to things we don't use up, or do these "belong" to no one or everyone, or what?

First, let us consider what sorts of things we have a human right to; then we can see how things get assigned to those who have rights to them.

1. We have a human right to consumable items such as food.

This is obvious. Since without food we would die, then the right to consume such things is a right implied by the right to life. And since the material things themselves are not self-determining and therefore have no rights, we can use whatever we please among them, including animals.

2. We have a human right to OWN more than we need to consume at the moment.

DEFINITION: To own means to keep for oneself; to prevent others from having or using.

This follows from the fact that we can foresee the future. We can recognize that when winter comes, the apples on this tree won't be there, and we will starve unless we store up things we can't use right now. Obviously, to let anyone who wanted our stored-up apples have what he wanted would contradict this, so that "storing" implies "storing exclusively for my own possible use." For us to foresee that there will later be need and not to be able to provide for the need would be to contradict this aspect of our natures.

And since we can foresee very great needs, it follows that

There is no natural limit to the amount of things that we can own.

This needs qualification, but let it stand for the moment.

3. We have a human right to own non-consumable things and to pass on what we own to others.

The basis of this is that we can provide for ourselves by owning animals from which we get wool, milk, and so on without consuming the animal itself, and by farming land, which will provide crops though we don't consume the land; and so on. In many situations, it would not be possible to survive unless such stable property could be owned, because growing seasons are too short to allow people to live as simple hunters and gatherers when the population becomes numerous.

Further, in various areas, it is impossible to live without clothing and shelter, which also must be owned if one is to be able to act on foreseeable needs.

Finally, if a person has children, then certainly at the beginning of their lives, they depend on the person for the necessities of life. But a person can foresee that he might die before the children grow to independence. For him not to be able to bequeath to them enough to see them through to the time when they can survive on their own would be to contradict the obligation the person has to provide for those he has brought into the world.

Therefore, we have a human right to own private property; and there is no natural limit to the amount of private property a person may own.

This again needs qualification, if one person's ownership of a great deal dehumanizes another person; but we will treat this in section 9.3.2. below.

For the moment, note that

Since the right to own private property is a human right, it is relatively inalienable, and therefore communistic civil societies, which deprive people of the ability to own private property, are morally wrong societies, and should not exist.

It is possible that, if ownership is in fact making the poor in a society starve, and if a kind of communistic redistribution of property is the only way to keep the rich from killing the poor, then, using the Double Effect, such a system may be temporarily installed. It would have to cease when the poor had the necessities of life, and could not continue toward some goal of "equalization," because, as I have said, we are not equal. But more of that below.

In the real world, however, a communistic solution has been demonstrated over and over again only to make a bad situation worse; and therefore, while in theory it could be justified, I don't think that there is any real communistic form of society which would actually be moral, even as something temporary. And unfortunately, "temporary" is another name for "permanent," once Communism gets its grip on a people.

[For this and the following section, see Modes, 6.2.3]

9.3.1. How ownership is assigned

Those are the rights we have that follow from our nature as needing the things around us to enable us to live a human life. But there is nothing in nature which assigns a given thing to a given person; so how can a given person get ownership of something, so that he can exclude others from owning it?

Thomas Hobbes saw this problem, and said, "He can't, except by fighting off others"; and so he envisioned the "natural state" of people as a war of everybody against everybody else; and then they gave up all their rights to a ruler, whose job was to distribute things (as he saw fit) and see to it that people didn't just kill each other off.

For various reasons, there is a lot that is unsatisfactory with this view, which we won't go into here. If exclusive ownership is a human right, it is insane that its natural exercise would be by clubbing others over the head.

John Locke thought we got rights of ownership by working on the object and transforming it somehow; then (because we had a right to ourselves) we had a natural right to the "fruits of our labor," and so could own things.

But this won't work either, for the reason (among others) that if I lend you something and you work on it, you would acquire ownership of it, and it wouldn't be mine any more. Instead of assigning ownership, this method would actually make who owned what more difficult to discover.

The true answer, I think, is rather simple.

A person acquires ownership of what is not already owned by making a claim of ownership.

That is, if you find something (even now) and its owner can't be discovered, then you say, "Finders keepers!" or some such thing, and it's yours.

You have to make a claim that is recognized by the people around you as a claim of ownership, because the idea is that you are informing them that this is yours now and they are excluded from using it. This does not have to be a statement, but, as in such things as "squatter's rights," the use of something as if you owned it (such as building a house on land, farming it, or fencing it in); this "stakes out a claim" on that property, as long as what you are doing is recognized as making a claim.

If something is already owned, it can be acquired only by having the owner give up his right to it.

He can give it to you or sell it to you, or whatever; but he has to give up his right in such a way that you acquire ownership. In small things, this is simple transference; in important things there is a document establishing title of ownership (such as the title of a car, the title deed of a house); and this is usually formally transferred in such a way that the society recognizes the transfer, so that the community at large will be aware who owns what.

Hence, it is by simple claims that initial ownership is established, and by transfers of the right of ownership that things get passed on from person to person.

9.3.2. Claims against others' property

All this would be rosy if everybody could lay claim to all he wanted. But in fact, by the time we are born just about everything in the world has already been claimed; and so how are we to survive?

The right of ownership, like any right, cannot be used to deprive anyone else of a right he has.

Hence, the right of ownership, if it leaves us without necessities (because we don't own anything, and so will starve and freeze), is depriving us of our right to life; and therefore, the right to ownership is not absolute.

A person loses his claim to the amount of property he has which is keeping others (who cannot get it for themselves) from having the necessities of life.

That is, if you and another person are stranded on an island, and you say, "I claim this whole island and everything on it," and then tell the other person that he has to serve you to get what you now own, then the function of claiming ownership (which was supposed to distribute things to humans because they need them to live) is contradicted. It is obvious that you lose claim to as much of the island as is necessary for the other person's life.

Note that you don't have to share equally. You thought of making the claim first; and so you have a right to the biggest chunk. It's just that you can't dehumanize the other person by your claim. You have no right to what he needs.

In the real world in which we live, the distribution of property is in fact preventing people from having the necessities of life. Therefore, those who are affluent do not have a right to all they own, however legitimately they may have acquired it. Even if you worked for it, you still don't have a right to all you own if your owning it is killing someone else or making him sick from malnutrition.

But then who is it that owns what percentage of what I have that is over my own necessities? Each deprived person has a claim on all affluent people as a whole, not on any specific person; because it is only because everyone has taken the things that he can't get them.

Similarly, each affluent person has an obligation to all deprived people, because no one person has any more claim on him than anyone else.

Hence, a person cannot discharge his moral duty to the poor by guessing how much of a "surplus" he has and then picking out some needy person and giving that to him.

Why is that? Several reasons. First, you don't know if your guess is more or less than the amount of your property you have no true right to (i.e. the amount you are in fact depriving people of). Second, this person has no claim on the whole of your surplus; and hence, if you give it to him, (a) you are depriving all the rest of the needy of what they have a right to from you, and (b) you are doing more for him than he has a right to have you do, and so he has to be grateful to you for being generous, in spite of the fact that (1) you are simply giving up what you have no right to own, and (2) he is receiving what he has a right to receive--but not from you.

Hence, private charity of the affluent to the needy is inherently unjust.

How is the dilemma to be resolved, then?

Civil society, whose function it is to see that no one's rights are violated, must (a) discover how much money is needed to keep the poor from being dehumanized (the necessities of life we talked of earlier) (b) discover who has more than enough and how much, and (c) assess the contribution of each affluent member toward the relief of necessity of the poor (using the Principle of Least Demand we will talk about in the next chapter), and (d) distribute this total to the poor according to their need.

In this way, the poor will be getting what they have a right to have (because of the way claims on property get made), and from whom they have a right to receive it (civil society, not some individual); and each affluent member will contribute what he has no right to own in the first place because that percentage of what he owns is killing others; and will contribute to all who have a claim on him.

Supposing the government to be attempting some such relief of the needy, then

An affluent person has discharged his obligation to the needy by paying his taxes, and they have no further claim on his wealth.

That is, if the poor are simply relatively poor in comparison to the wealthy; but they have the necessities of life and the opportunity to work to get more, then there is nothing morally wrong with even huge disparities in wealth and income. It is only when ownership deprives others of necessities that the wealthy person loses his claim to a percentage of what he owns. Otherwise, it is his.

Remember, we are not equal; and "equalizing the wealth" is not only not demanded by nature, it is unjust.

Now if society is clearly not doing its job (it is doing it in the United States, by the way, at present--in fact, overdoing it), then private charity by the wealthy is morally necessary. They can't let people starve while they have more than they know what to do with; and so they would have to relieve the need of the people they come in contact with. This will be somewhat unjust, but it is the best that could be done under the circumstances.

Since some societies are affluent and some needy, the only just way to relieve the need is for an international society to be formed, which would function as above for societies instead of individuals. Barring that, "private charity" of affluent societies toward poor ones is the best that can be done, with all its attendant injustices.

That is, the poor societies justly resent having to thank us for "giving" to them, especially with the strings we attach, when they know that they have a right to some of what we own because our ownership is in fact depriving them of what they need.

There is much more to this, not just in the practical realm, but the moral one as well (E.g. you don't have to give money to some starving person when you know he's just going to spend it on booze; and societies do not have to give to other societies when they know that the money is only going to be spent on armaments and new palaces for the king. But what do you do with such people and such governments? Not easy. Further, an international societie will not necessarily be free of corruption, and what it does do does not necessarily solve the problem.); but there is no space for this in an overview such as we are doing. So let this suffice for the general principles. For a more extended treatment of this subject, see my book, The Moral Dimension of Human Economic Life.

9.4. Other rights

Those two human rights (the right to life and the right to own property) are perhaps the most complex and at the moment the most controversial of rights. Let me simply name a couple of other human rights we have, and then we can pass on to a consideration of society.

If a person performs a service for another, he has a right to compensation for his service, at least to recovering what he lost in performing the service.

This is another extremely complex subject, and belongs in business ethics. Basically, it means that the person's time spent serving another is for the other and not for his own self-development; and therefore, he is enslaved to the other if he doesn't get back at least what he could have been doing in pursuing his own goals during that time. Compensation in money allows him then to purchase the services of still other people to bring him to where he would have been had he been acting in his own interest and not serving someone else.

Serving others, as I said, is the way we get from the necessities of life to pursuing personal goals; therefore, compensation has to be enough to enable us to do this, at least to some extent.

Since an unhealthy person cannot act up to his genetic potential, then being unhealthy is dehumanizing; and therefore, a person has a human right to the means to be healthy.

But since health is recovered by means of the service of health-care practitioners, this right must not deny them the right to compensation. But it can deny them the "right" to overcompensation.

This thorny problem is one of the least treated and most burning issues of medical ethics, especially given that 12 per cent of the gross national product (over 300 billion dollars) goes into the medical industry, and doctors median income is $80,000 a year--twice to three times any other group's. But this, like other questions dealing with medical ethics, is beyond the scope of this overview. My views on it can be found in my book, Ethics in the Health-Care Field.

Since parents are the ones who cause their children to begin to exist, it follows that

Children have a human right against their biological parents for whatever is necessary to develop toward being an adult who can function in a human way: food, clothing, shelter, education, etc.

Why against their biological parents? Because the biological parents are the ones whose action caused the child to exist; and therefore, the biological parents are responsible for the consequences of their actions.

In cases, however, where the biological parents can't or won't fulfill their obligation and the children are being positively harmed, then using the Double Effect they may be placed with other adults who will take over the parents' role.

The child's right to be raised by both of his biological parents does not yield to any interest of either of his parents.

That is, if the parents find they "can't live together" because they're "incompatible," then they had damn well better get used to the idea of living together at least until the children are raised to adulthood. The only time they can separate is if actual serious damage is being done to one of the partners or the children (e.g. by physical beating or something of the sort) by their remaining together.

This business of children who have two or three Mommies and a couple of Daddies has got to stop.

And since children have this right against their parents, it follows that parents have the moral obligation to provide for the upbringing in all areas of life of their children.


Parents have the human right to bring up their children as their conscience dictates they should be brought up.

They are not to be forced to violate their conscience in bringing up their children, therefore. This includes educating the children. If they think a secular education is bad for children, then it is morally wrong of society to make it economically difficult or impossible for parents to educate their children in a non-secular way. Providing secular public schools is not enough, because it can in fact violate the conscience of parents, who are economically forced to send their children to such schools.

However, it is possible that parents can do damage to their children, even unwittingly and following their conscience. But since the children are human beings, they have a right not to be harmed by their parents.

If the way parents are bringing up their children does clear harm to the children, then society can force the parents to act otherwise, or (if this violates the parents' consciences) can take the children away from the parents.

Thus, if parents think that giving blood transfusions is morally wrong, and if their child will die without one, he may be taken away from the parents and given the transfusion, and then given back to them. If parents think that beating children is the way to rear them, and they are inflicting real damage on the children, then they may be ordered to stop, or the children may be taken away from them.

Such things are not lightly to be done; because "good" and "bad" have a subjective element. But it is obvious that in some cases, parents are violating the humanity of their children; and this must not be allowed to happen.

But this chapter would become several volumes if we let it; so let us stop here.

Summary of Chapter 9

The most basic human right is the right to life, which is absolute, not because life is the "greatest value," but because the right follows from the moral obligation not to choose one's death. Hence, it is immoral to choose to kill another against the other's will, or even if asked by the other.

But using the Double Effect, at times an action leading to death may be chosen without choosing the other's death. In defending someone against an attack, the death of the attacker is not the means to the defense; but the attacker's death is kept out of the choice only if the action saves at least one life. The numbers of lives saved and those lost need not be equal, though the ones lost may not vastly outnumber those saved.

Abortions are morally wrong except to save the mother's life (and for nothing short of this); because it can be proved that the embryo or fetus is a human being. It is not part of the mother, because it acts for itself even at the expense of the mother. It is a whole organism, not a mass of cells, because its development is unified and directed. It is not in a pre-human condition, because the organs developed are those adapted to life outside the uterus, not inside. Abortions may be done to save the mother's life, because the fetus is in fact attacking the mother's life, and it is not the death, but the removal of the fetus, which saves the mother's life. But when such abortions are necessary, the method that causes least damage, and pain to both parties is to be used.

The body is dead when decay begins, because the organizing activity, which makes it human, is what prevents the chemicals from seeking their lowest energy-states. When the brain begins to decay, about ten minutes after no brain function occurs, then the body is a corpse, and waiting a few minutes longer for moral certainty, organs may then be removed for transplanting.

If it is known that a person does not want death postponed by life-preserving means, then his wishes must be respected; if he wants them used, his wishes must also be respected. If it is not known what he wants, then if there is hope of recovery, or of regaining consciousness so that he can choose, the life-preserving means must be used. If nothing is to be gained but prolonged agony and expense, they may be stopped. It is morally wrong to withhold life maintenance of food, water, and air.

Each person has a human right against civil society to what is necessary to keep him alive. However, if a person deliberately chooses to harm only himself and no one else, he cannot be prevented from doing so. Hence, if he can work and refuses to do so, he must be allowed to starve to death. When he can't, he has a right to no more than the necessities, and it is wrong for civil society to give a person more, because it takes away human self-determination. A person has a human right to the opportunity to work, because this is the way he raises himself above bare necessities and exercises self-determination.

We are not all equal, and therefore we have no human right to be treated equally. There is nothing wrong with there being vast differences in the way people are treated, as long as no one is treated as if he were less than human. None of us has a right to equality of opportunity with others, because we are not equal, and some would not be able to use the "equal" opportunity, and for others, it would not be enough. No one has a right to be able to pursue any goal he wishes to pursue, because no human can actually achieve his goals in this life, and it would be dangerous to allow certain people to pursue some goals. No real damage is done by preventing them, since they can achieve their goals after they die. No individual has a right not to be discriminated against, since we are not in fact equal. But if a whole class is prevented from doing what the people in that class can do, then their nature is being violated; and to correct a conspiracy against them, it is not unjust to use "reverse discrimination," as long as it is not against the other class as a whole.

We have a human right to consumable items such as food, because without food we die. We have a human right to own more than we need, to own stable property which we don't consume, and to pass this on to our heirs, because otherwise we would be prevented from providing for future needs, and providing for our dependents in case of our death. Since needs cannot be accurately foretold, there is no natural limit on how much a person may own. Communistic societies, which deprive people of these human rights, are morally wrong societies.

Original ownership is not established, as Hobbes thought, by fighting, or as Locke thought, by working, but simply by making a recognizable claim on what is unowned. If an item is owned, ownership is transferred by the owner's giving up his right to another person.

But the right of ownership cannot be used to deprive others of the necessities of life; hence, each affluent person has no right to whatever percentage of his property is in fact preventing others from having what they need to live. The obligation to give this percentage to the needy cannot justly be discharged by the individual, but must be done by civil society, which discovers the need and assesses the amount each affluent person must contribute to relieving it; and thus, the affluent people have discharged their obligation to the needy when they pay taxes, if the government is in fact trying to keep the poor from lacking the necessities of life. "Equalizing" income is unjust. If the government is not doing its job, private charity by the wealthy is necessary. Since there are needy and affluent societies, there is needed an international society to perform this function; until this occurs, private charity by the affluent societies must act as a stop-gap.

A person has a human right to compensation for services he renders to another. An unhealthy person has a human right to health care; but this is not to deny the health-care practitioner his compensation; but it can deny overcompensation. Children have human rights against their parents to the means to develop toward functional adulthood; and therefore parents have human rights against others and the society to be able to bring up their children according to their consciences. If parents do actual damage to their children, even following their consciences, they can be forced to stop, or the children can be taken away from them.

Exercises and questions for discussion

1. What do you do with two people who have equal rights to the same thing, but only one can exercise the right? For example, a Palestinian's grandparents were expelled from a plot of land in Israel, and the grandchild of the Israeli settler (who did nothing wrong) inherited the land from his father (who also was not the one who expelled the Palestinian's ancestor)? Who gets the land?

2. Does a person have a human right not to be "sexually harassed" on the job (i.e. made the object of sexual advances and/or remarks)? How would this differ, if at all, from a right not to be annoyed in a non-sexual way by a loudmouth colleague?

3. If your boss tells you to do something which is not illegal or immoral but has nothing to do with your job description, does he have a right to tell you to do this, and (a) must you obey, (b) must you protest, or (c) must you disobey?

4. Why can't you assist someone in committing suicide? Granted, it may be immoral for him to choose his death, but it's his life after all, isn't it, and who are you to condemn him to extra weeks or even years of suffering?

5. Judith Jarvis Thompson argues that even if a fetus is another person, he is still using your body for his own benefit, and your body is yours and so you have a right not to be used against your will; so you can "unplug" yourself from him. Hint Siamese twins are also "plugged together."

6. If we don't in fact have a right to equality of opportunity, isn't the basis of the American system (which tries to give equality of opportunity to all) morally wrong?

7. Don't doctors have a right to compensation for the amount of time they spent studying to prepare for medical careers? (Hint: Do Symphony musicians, who spend at least as much time preparing for their careers deserve compensation for their years of study?)