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.