Unraveling the Complexities of the Right to Life

Apr 4


Sam Vaknin

Sam Vaknin

  • Share this article on Facebook
  • Share this article on Twitter
  • Share this article on Linkedin

The right to life is often heralded as a fundamental, unassailable principle in Western societies, deemed inalienable and indivisible. However, upon closer examination, this right is neither as straightforward nor as universal as it appears. It is a cultural construct, shaped by societal norms, historical contexts, and interpretive frameworks. The right to life is not a singular, monolithic concept but rather a collection of distinct rights, each with its own set of moral and legal implications. This article delves into the multifaceted nature of the right to life, exploring its various components and the ethical dilemmas they present.

The Multifaceted Nature of the Right to Life

Rights,Unraveling the Complexities of the Right to Life Articles whether moral or legal, entail obligations on others towards the right-holder. This duality often leads to confusion, with people mistaking rights for moral decency or permissibility. However, moral behavior is not contingent on the existence of a right; obligations are. Rights and duties are two sides of the same ethical coin.

The right to life is an amalgamation of at least eight distinct rights: the right to be brought to life, the right to be born, the right to have one's life maintained, the right not to be killed, the right to have one's life saved, the right to save one's life (often reduced to self-defense), the right to terminate one's life, and the right to have one's life terminated. None of these rights are self-evident, unambiguous, universal, immutable, or automatically applicable, making them derivative rather than primary.

The Right to be Brought to Life

In most moral and legal systems, life begets rights. The dead have rights by virtue of the living, and where there is no life, there are no rights. This raises questions about the potential for life, as seen in debates over cloning and the moral status of gametes. The potential to be alive does not equate to actual life, and thus cannot confer rights or obligations.

The Right to be Born

The right to be born emerges when adults intentionally fertilize an egg, creating a contract with the resulting embryo. However, this right becomes contentious in cases of involuntary or unintentional conception, such as rape or accidental pregnancy. The nature of conception does not negate the embryo's right to life, but it does not impose an obligation on the mother to sustain the embryo at her expense.

The Right to Have One's Life Maintained

The extent to which one can use others' bodies, property, or resources to maintain one's life is a complex issue. While society may owe individuals the means to sustain their lives, no individual has the right to demand such sacrifices from another without a contract that creates corresponding duties.

The Right not to be Killed

The right not to be killed unjustly is widely recognized, but what constitutes "just" is subject to ethical and social interpretation. If someone's existence continuously violates the rights of others, and those others object, then the violator may be justifiably killed to restore the rights of the victims.

The Right to have One's Life Saved

There is no moral obligation to save a life, which distinguishes the morally commendable from the obligatory. Legal obligations to save lives do not necessarily arise from moral rights.

The Right to Save One's Own Life

Self-defense is a recognized right, but it does not extend to killing innocent persons who pose an unintentional threat. The moral calculus of rights does not always justify taking a life to save one's own.

The Right to Terminate One's Life

Cultural and societal norms influence the perception of suicide and self-termination. While some societies commend suicide when it serves social ends, others, like Judeo-Christian traditions, view life as divine property, making suicide a violation of divine and societal rights.

The Right to Have One's Life Terminated

Euthanasia is subject to legal and ethical constraints. In places like the Netherlands, it is legal to have one's life terminated with assistance under certain conditions, reflecting a societal stance on the quality of life and the imminence of death.

Issues in the Calculus of Rights

The Hierarchy of Rights

The right to life is paramount in Western systems, but it often conflicts with other rights, leading to ethical dilemmas. When rights clash, decisions can be made through moral arithmetic or random selection.

The Difference between Killing and Letting Die

There is a moral distinction between actively taking a life and passively failing to save one. The obligation not to kill does not equate to an obligation to save a life.

Killing the Innocent

The moral calculus becomes particularly challenging when the life of an innocent person threatens another. The decision to take a life in such cases depends on a range of factors, including the potential for saving multiple lives.

Collateral Damage

The principle of "over-riding affiliation" often guides decisions in moral dilemmas, such as whether to risk the lives of fighter pilots or civilians. This principle reflects a hierarchy of moral obligations, with those related to one's affiliations often taking precedence over universal moral values.

In conclusion, the right to life is not as clear-cut as it is often portrayed. It is a complex, culturally dependent construct that encompasses a range of rights and obligations. Understanding this complexity is crucial for navigating the ethical landscapes of life and death.

For further reading on the right to life and its implications, consider exploring the United Nations Human Rights framework or the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for a deeper philosophical perspective.