Saturday, October 6, 2007

Rights, Part 2: A Brief History of the Right to Life

I am happy to finally post the second part of Kurt's series (I whined about it last night, here it is) on rights. I will try to post again myself, as soon as possible. I have been and continue to be very busy right now. I will also have to consider a good response to Kurt's series, something that provides an increasing challenge, as he continues the discussion.

In any case, I really appreciate his getting this to me, so soon after I (jokingly) whined about my sadness and increasingly rapt anticipation for this piece. . .Thank you Kurt.

In Part 1, we covered my general theory of culture and how rights have never been framed as absolutes until modern times. Today, we will look at how different cultures have interpreted the right to life.

If there is any inalienable right, it is the right to life. If you don't have that right, there is no good way to exercise any of the others. So if life is not an inalienable right, then no such thing as inalienable rights exist. I am going to tautologies here because this is an absolutely vital point for my argument: And there is no such thing as a blanket, overarching right to life.

Every known culture has rules for dealing with intra-group conflict and killing. But there is a catch: It only applies to those within the group, and not everyone in the culture is even defined as being in the group. Arctic peoples used to leave behind the elderly and disabled when they moved camps; in a similar vein, Herodotus lists several Mediterranean cultures which killed people who reached retirement age. Most cultures have practiced some form of abortion or infanticide, usually infanticide since abortions had the unpleasant side-effect of frequently killing the mother. Jews and Roma (Gypsy) in Europe have been defined by the fact that they possess little or no rights.

The Sixth Commandment famously says, "Thou shalt not kill," but the word in Hebrew means murder, not kill. If you kill the servant or slave of someone else, that is dealt with separately, and is only a monetary fine. Most Greek states allowed the abandonment of infants. The story of Oedipus is not atypical: His feet were pierced through with a bronze spike and then he was abandoned in the countryside.

Things changed a bit with the advent of Christian rule. Infanticide could now be punished by death. However, it almost never was. The general practice was termed "overlaying," in which the mother would "accidentally" roll over during the night and crush or suffocate the child. This accident occurred with alarming frequency throughout Europe and then Colonial America for a thousand years. Strangely, it occurred most often within families that could not support an extra mouth.

Approaching modern times, cultures increasingly adopted Death by Institution. In early 19th Century France, for instance, mothers could drop their babies off at foundling hospitals, workhouses or orphanages. The mothers surely knew that the infant stood a less than ten percent change of surviving their first year. As one contemporary put it, "These mothers know their [ie, the child's] fate as surely as if they dropped them in the river." These proved so popular that institutions in French cities invented the revolving "deposit box" to ease late-night dropoffs. Think about that the next time you go to a drive-through.

In the 20th Century, the Third Reich adopted a special diet devoid of fat for inmates of mental hospitals; they could thus provide useful work almost up to the moment of death. In Ireland, the last Magdalene House closed in 1996. Placement in both Nazi insane asylums and the Magdalene Houses were almost entirely voluntary, with the approval of the families.

All of these are examples of what cultures did to their own people. Imagine how they felt about outsiders. Even here in the US, we have groups that define various other groups as racially inferior, believe in race purity, and teach that not just cultures but cultural groups should be kept strictly segregated. A video appeared on Youtube recently which purported to show a white vigilante shooting an illegal immigrant near the Mexican border. The video was a hoax, but the message was clear. And not unusual.

Let's move on to the death penalty. The US is a world leader in judicial executions. The state of Texas recently petitioned a judge to not allow DNA testing that might exonerate a man who has already been executed. Might bring bad publicity, donchaknow. For most of Western History, the only curb on capital punishment was that Ecclesial Courts did not have capital authority (hence the Benefit of Clergy; the first murder was free). However, the Church could and did turn "heretics" over to the civil authorities, who were under no such restrictions.

There is one constant in all of this: Life has been incredibly cheap throughout human history. Infant mortality was high. Peasants are fungible. Even noble families sufferred their losses in silence. In Tudor England, a man was supposed to "Make a good death," part of a cult of death that has lingered since neolithic times, if not before. Thus, Charles I wore two shirts to his beheading, because he did not want people to see him shiver and think he was afraid.

Where in all of this is the Right to Life? Obviously, it is not. We recognize such a right today, but not for everybody, and purely for our own purposes. It still doesn't mean that we always provide needed medical care for those who cannot afford it, or shelter to the homeless woman in danger of freezing. And life is still cheap: How much per life for Bhopal, for instance? How much should the cigarette makers be forced to pay? How long should a hospital be required to run a ventilator for a man with no insurance?

No, there is no Right to Life. Fortunately, that is not altogether bad. I'll try to get Part 3 posted soon.


Beth said...

Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, are we not? And so I think the founding fathers of our country may have seen throughout history these atrocities against human life as you have described here, and so they enumerated in the Declaration of Independence the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as being inalienable rights. They are endowed by our Creator, not the government, but it is up to us as humans to uphold these rights for each other. When we supress the most basic of these rights, life, then we do indeed cheapen life, but that does not stop it from being a right we ought to defend. I think we are called to rise above these historical examples of disrespect for human life, and stop the cycle that justifies death and neglect simply because it's happened before in history.

kehrsam said...

I appreciate your comment, Beth, but what does "Right" mean? Especially when it is dependent on the society? Unless it has some separate existence like a Platonic Form, in what does it inure? And as you have no doubt guessed, I am not a Platonist.

Believe me, I am not saying that any of the things in my litany of horror are good. Nor bad, for that matter. I am trying to get beyond values language, as that merely tends to cloud the issue from what happens in reality to how I might like it to be.

Recall my definition of culture from Part 1: My argument, therefore, is that cultures have recurrently selected technologies of infanticide (for instance) because that increased the overall benefits available through the culture over time.

Yes, that should be a troubling conclusion.

steven said...


I wouldn't consider the right to life to include the provision of medical care when you can't afford it. Right to life means the right to be free from having your life taken by an act of aggression committed by another person.

Just an observation.

kehrsam said...

steven: Please don't blame DuWayne, it's a guest post.

Since my argument is that rights have no individual existence or meaning, I agree with your first statement.

As to your second, why do you draw a line at aggression? How about lead-contaminated toys, for instance?

And if the right is universal, why do so many cultures seem to ignore it? If they do ignore it, can you truly claim it exists? That's the whole point of this series. Thanks for the comment,and keep 'em coming!

steven said...


My appologies to DuWayne. I guess I should have said, instead of aggression, some sort of deliberate action on the part of another. Your example of lead paint in toys would work.

Even though cultures ignore an individual's rights I wouldn't take that to mean that these rights don't exist, only that they are being violated. Our Declaration of Independence declared that our rights came from our creator, not the government. So I would contend that, for example, gay people have the right to enter into a marriage contract, but that right is being violated by our government (along with the many other rights our government violates all the time).

There are certainly much better ways of putting this, but they are beyond my ability. Sorry.

Beth said...

I don't look at the right to life as an issue of what cultures actually do or even want, but rather as what they should strive towards. Because none of us really were given the choice to be born or not, but by our very existence we inherit from our Creator the right to life and free will, which governments and cultures have in history denied these rights but they are inside all of us just the same.

DuWayne Brayton said...

I am going to have more to say later, but a few observations.

Beth -

I think we are called to rise above these historical examples of disrespect for human life, and stop the cycle that justifies death and neglect simply because it's happened before in history.

This is a very good argument for universal health care.

Steve -

No apologies, I actually voraciously support UHC, so it applies.

I actually disagree with Kurt, to a degree. I am not going to get to deep now, as my time is limited. Put simply, I think we do have certain, inherent rights, life being one of them. Society can do one of three things (most do all of them, depending on the right).

Society, or government can either choose to repress the right in question, take a benign stance or actively promote that right.

In the case of providing health care, the U.S. current stance is benign, in regards to the right to life. UHC would simply move that stance to actively promoting the right to life.

Kurt -

I will get back to this later, possibly with a whole new post in response. I am not sure though, I kind of want to wait for part three to make a full post about this. We'll see, regardless, when I get the chance, I will respond more fully.

kehrsam said...

To All: Thanks for the responses. And believe me, as a Christian, I would very much like to believe that there exists such a thing as inalienable rights, given to us by a benevolent Creator. Unfortunately, I do not see where such a thing exists outside of the realm of ideas.

Beth said I think we are called to rise above these historical examples of disrespect for human life, and stop the cycle that justifies death and neglect simply because it's happened before in history.

You're way ahead of me, but, yes, that will be my argument in Part3, that we are perhaps the first culture in history which has the knowledge and opportunity to make conscious choices about the nature of our future culture.

Again, thanks to all.

Beth said...

As for universal health care, why I don't see it as a right to life issue is that I do believe that anyone with a need can get health care in this country, there are free clinics and charity hospitals already. Not having insurance does not mean anyone is denied health care.

Beth said...

Another point I'd like to make is that the pro-choice people who say they would personally choose life but do not feel that they can tell a woman what to do with her body, I see this as a disconnect in our society where we are not willing to stand up for the right to life of another. We are dependent upon each other to uphold this basic right, and sadly we do not.

steven said...


I agree with you that rights don't exist outside the realm of ideas (but they are very uplifting and noble ideas). To say that rights are endowed by our creator, in my mind, was more a way of saying that rights are not endowed by the government then saying that they are something given to us by our creator (whoever or whatever that may be). From now on I am going to refrain from saying that our rights are endowed by our creator.

I am a purist in the belief that the rights of the individual supersede all other rights, including the rights of society as a whole. The protection of individual rights is the highest calling of society. I don't believe that group rights are legitimate. Any group right that I can think of should be broken down into rights of the individuals within the group.

That's why I reject the idea of a welfare state as a legitimate activity of government. To use the coersive power of government (or any other group) to take things of value from one person to provide for the needs of another violates the rights of the one being taken from. Providing for another person's needs should only be done on a voluntary basis.

kehrsam said...

Steven: An interesting point about "welfare rights" and I'll have to think about it. It won't impact this series; rather, it is a level of abstraction lower, the discussion about what rights societies should promote, rather than whether rights exist at all.

My only problem with your position is that I am not sure "Welfare Rights" is merely a convenient title for "Political decisions that don't benefit me." All government spending directly benefits someone; most of it indirectly benefits others as well. Like i said, I'll have to give it some thought.

steven said...

Actually, kerhsam, I think that the welfare state is harmful to society. In the eyes of the receiver of benefits, it fosters an attitude of entitlement and resentment of those that have more, as well as making those receiving benefits less likely to put forth their best effort to provide for themselves. I see this all the time, even in my own family. In the eyes of the providers of benefits, it fosters resentment in feeling like we have to be ordered by those in charge to help people that are in need, instead of having the privledge of giving voluntary assistance. As I'm sure you know, there is great satisfaction in both helping someone in need and in receiving their gratification for being helped. The welfare state robs us of that satisfaction. It also robs us of our human dignity.

I don't have any religious faith, but I do have faith that most Americans are very willing to help those that, through no fault of their own, are truly in need. There is no compassion in being forced by the government to provide for the needs of others. Only through volunatry means can one show their compassion for the needs of others.

kehrsam said...

Steven: I'll try to address the Welfare State at some point in the future. Like I said, it fits into a lower level of analysis than I'm doing right now, policy rather than definitions. I think there is a lot to be said to your social analysis.

As you might have guessed, I'm going to apply my model f culture as outlined in Part 1, so I'm going to differ with some of your conclusions. But a lot of the policy arguments will be similar. Thanks for the kind comments so far.

bullfighter said...

Excellent post, Kurt! It should be required reading. Good food for the mind, and a perfect seed for many intelligent discussions.

But what does it prove about rights? Probably not too much. As some commenters have pointed out, it doesn't prove that rights don't exist: they may still exist, but be violated with alarming frequency. And it certainly doesn't prove (nor I think you'd want to assert) that rights are not worth striving for.

In my comment to your previous post, or rather to DuWayne's comment to it, I wrote that there are two senses in which one can believe in rights. While I only believe in rights in the second sense (worthy goal), and not in the first (real, objective existence), I can't say that your article refutes either. (Nevertheless, I genuinely enjoyed reading it.)

BTW, with respect to some comments, I am sick and tired of citing the Creator stuff from DOI. Whether Jefferson meant that in earnest, or as a metaphor, or as an expression of a nuanced (for the time) philosophical view, or simply as demagoguery, I really couldn't care less. It is rhetorically effective, but substsantively bullshit. I like Jefferson, but he lived in the fucking 18th century and his knowledge of the world isn't (or at least shouldn't be) enough to finish junior high school now.

Also, I support your stance of politely refusing to get into an ideological debate with a libertarian. Keep the good job of writing about grown-up themes instead!

bullfighter said...

BTW, I am not sure that I agree with the initial premise of the post, that the right to life is a necessary condition for all other rights. I've often argued that myself, and it is approximately true as applied to most familiar societies, but it is not true generally.

Imagine a society where you can never be punished for anything you say or write (even yelling "fire" in a crowded theater is allowed), but there is a death lottery: every week, a person is chosen by random drawing and killed. Obviously, there is no right to life in that society, but can you say that there is any abridgment of the right to free speech?

You can plug in almost any other right instead of (or besides) freedom of speech. (The only exception would be the right to opt out of the lottery.) You can also increase the likelihood of "winning" the lottery. As long as the killings are random, and hence in no way connected to punishment, it seems that there is no limit to how much other rights can be respected while at the same time the right to life is violated to an arbitrary extent.

Yes, the example is artificial, but relevant.

kehrsam said...

Shirley Jackson would be so proud! Yes, the culture would be exercising other rights. But it would be doing so in the context of affording the right to life to everyone except the lottery winners. Conversely, we could say that generally, the culture promotes all rights to all, but specifically denies all rights to the lottery winner. In any case, if life is not guaranteed, talk of other rights is meaningless. Hobbes covered this very ably, in my opinion.

I have questioned this premise also, which is why I chose to make it explicit in the essay. What I lacked was a really good hypo. Now I've got that.