I. The Right to Life
It is a fundamental principle of most moral theories that all human beings have a right to life. The existence of a right implies obligations or duties of third parties towards the right-holder. One has a right AGAINST other people. The fact that one possesses a certain right - prescribes to others certain obligatory behaviours and proscribes certain acts or omissions. This Janus-like nature of rights and duties as two sides of the same ethical coin - creates great confusion. People often and easily confuse rights and their attendant duties or obligations with the morally decent, or even with the morally permissible. What one MUST do as a result of another's right - should never be confused with one SHOULD or OUGHT to do morally (in the absence of a right).
The right to life has six distinct strains:
IA. The right to be brought to life
IB. The right to be born
IC. The right to be maintained
ID. The right not to be killed
IE. The right to have one's life saved
IF. The right to save one's life (erroneously limited to the right to self-defence)
IG. The Right to terminate one's life
IH. The right to have one's life terminated
IA. The Right to be Brought to Life
Only living people have rights. There is a debate whether a fetus is a living person - but there can be no doubt that it exists. Its rights - whatever they are - derive from the fact that it exists. The right to be brought to life (the right to become or to be) pertains to a yet non-existent entity and, therefore, is null and void. Had this right existed, it would have implied an obligation or duty to give life to the unborn and the not yet conceived. No such duty or obligation exist.
IB. The Right to be Born
The right to be born crystallizes at the moment of voluntary and intentional fertilization. If a woman knowingly engages in sexual intercourse for the explicit and express purpose of having a child - then the resulting fertilized egg has a right to mature and be born. Furthermore, the born child has all the rights a child has against his parents: food, shelter, emotional nourishment, education, and so on.
It is debatable whether such rights of the fetus and, later, of the child, exist if the fertilization was either involuntary (rape) or unintentional ("accidental" pregnancies). It would seem that the fetus has a right to be kept alive outside the mother's womb, if possible. But it is not clear whether it has a right to go on using the mother's body, or resources, or to burden her in any way in order to sustain its own life (see IC below).
IC. The Right to be Maintained
Does one have the right to maintain one's life and prolong them at other people's expense? Does one have the right to use other people's bodies, their property, their time, their resources and to deprive them of pleasure, comfort, material possessions, income, or any other thing?
The answer is yes and no.
No one has a right to sustain his or her life, maintain, or prolong them at another INDIVIDUAL's expense (no matter how minimal and insignificant the sacrifice required is). Still, if a contract has been signed - implicitly or explicitly - between the parties, then such a right may crystallize in the contract and create corresponding duties and obligations, moral, as well as legal.
No fetus has a right to sustain its life, maintain, or prolong them at his mother's expense (no matter how minimal and insignificant the sacrifice required of her is). Still, if she signed a contract with the fetus - by knowingly and willingly and intentionally conceiving it - such a right has crystallized and has created corresponding duties and obligations of the mother towards her fetus.
On the other hand, everyone has a right to sustain his or her life, maintain, or prolong them at SOCIETY's expense (no matter how major and significant the resources required are). Still, if a contract has been signed - implicitly or explicitly - between the parties, then the abrogation of such a right may crystallize in the contract and create corresponding duties and obligations, moral, as well as legal.
Everyone has a right to sustain his or her life, maintain, or prolong them at society's expense. Public hospitals, state pension schemes, and police forces may be required to fulfill society's obligations - but fulfill them it must, no matter how major and significant the resources are. Still, if a person volunteered to join the army and a contract has been signed between the parties, then this right has been thus abrogated and the individual assumed certain duties and obligations, including the duty or obligation to give up his or her life to society.
ID. The Right not to be Killed
Every person has the right not to be killed unjustly. What constitutes "just killing" is a matter for an ethical calculus in the framework of a social contract.
But does A's right not to be killed include the right against third parties that they refrain from enforcing the rights of other people against A? Does A's right not to be killed preclude the righting of wrongs committed by A against others - even if the righting of such wrongs means the killing of A?
Not so. There is a moral obligation to right wrongs (to restore the rights of other people). If A maintains or prolongs his life ONLY by violating the rights of others and these other people object to it - then A must be killed if that is the only way to right the wrong and re-assert their rights.
IE. The Right to have One's Life Saved
There is no such right as there is no corresponding moral obligation or duty to save a life. This "right" is a demonstration of the aforementioned muddle between the morally commendable, desirable and decent ("ought", "should") and the morally obligatory, the result of other people's rights ("must").
In some countries, the obligation to save life is legally codified. But while the law of the land may create a LEGAL right and corresponding LEGAL obligations - it does not always or necessarily create a moral or an ethical right and corresponding moral duties and obligations.
IF. The Right to Save One's Own Life
The right to self-defence is a subset of the more general and all-pervasive right to save one's own life. One has the right to take certain actions or avoid taking certain actions in order to save his or her own life.
It is generally accepted that one has the right to kill a pursuer who knowingly and intentionally intends to take one's life. It is debatable, though, whether one has the right to kill an innocent person who unknowingly and unintentionally threatens to take one's life.
IG. The Right to Terminate One's Life
See "The Murder of Oneself".
IH. The Right to Have One's Life Terminated
The right to euthanasia, to have one's life terminated at will, is restricted by numerous social, ethical, and legal rules, principles, and considerations. In a nutshell - in many countries in the West one is thought to has a right to have one's life terminated with the help of third parties if one is going to die shortly anyway and if one is going to be tormented and humiliated by great and debilitating agony for the rest of one's remaining life if not helped to die. Of course, for one's wish to be helped to die to be accommodated, one has to be in sound mind and to will one's death knowingly, intentionally, and forcefully.
II. Issues in the Calculus of Rights
IIA. The Hierarchy of Rights
All human cultures have hierarchies of rights. These hierarchies reflect cultural mores and lores and there cannot, therefore, be a universal, or eternal hierarchy.
In Western moral systems, the Right to Life supersedes all other rights (including the right to one's body, to comfort, to the avoidance of pain, to property, etc.).
Yet, this hierarchical arrangement does not help us to resolve cases in which there is a clash of EQUAL rights (for instance, the conflicting rights to life of two people). One way to decide among equally potent claims is randomly (by flipping a coin, or casting dice). Alternatively, we could add and subtract rights in a somewhat macabre arithmetic. If a mother's life is endangered by the continued existence of a fetus and assuming both of them have a right to life we can decide to kill the fetus by adding to the mother's right to life her right to her own body and thus outweighing the fetus' right to life.
IIB. The Difference between Killing and Letting Die
There is an assumed difference between killing (taking life) and letting die (not saving a life). This is supported by IE above. While there is a right not to be killed - there is no right to have one's own life saved. Thus, while there is an obligation not to kill - there is no obligation to save a life.
IIC. Killing the Innocent
Often the continued existence of an innocent person (IP) threatens to take the life of a victim (V). By "innocent" we mean "not guilty" - not responsible for killing V, not intending to kill V, and not knowing that V will be killed due to IP's actions or continued existence.
It is simple to decide to kill IP to save V if IP is going to die anyway shortly, and the remaining life of V, if saved, will be much longer than the remaining life of IP, if not killed. All other variants require a calculus of hierarchically weighted rights.
One form of calculus is the utilitarian theory. It calls for the maximization of utility (life, happiness, pleasure). In other words, the life, happiness, or pleasure of the many outweigh the life, happiness, or pleasure of the few. It is morally permissible to kill IP if the lives of two or more people will be saved as a result and there is no other way to save their lives. Despite strong philosophical objections to some of the premises of utilitarian theory - I agree with its practical prescriptions.
In this context - the dilemma of killing the innocent - one can also call upon the right to self defence. Does V have a right to kill IP regardless of any moral calculus of rights? Probably not. One is rarely justified in taking another's life to save one's own. But such behaviour cannot be condemned. Here we have the flip side of the confusion - understandable and perhaps inevitable behaviour (self defence) is mistaken for a MORAL RIGHT. That most V's would kill IP and that we would all sympathize with V and understand its behaviour does not mean that V had a RIGHT to kill IP. V may have had a right to kill IP - but this right is not automatic, nor is it all-encompassing.
Sam Vaknin is the author of Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited and After the Rain - How the West Lost the East. He is a columnist for Central Europe Review, United Press International (UPI) and eBookWeb and the editor of mental health and Central East Europe categories in The Open Directory, Suite101 and searcheurope.com.
Visit Sam's Web site at http://samvak.tripod.com