EARL: How Fundamental is the Right to Life?
Published: Monday, October 28, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, October 29, 2013 01:10
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, all people have an inviolable, inalienable and fundamental moral right, namely, the “right to life and physical integrity from the moment of conception until death.” As Pope John Paul II put it in his Christifidelis Laici, the right to life is “the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights.”
In most public debates on the right to life, we fight over whether beings at the margins of personhood, like fetuses and people in persistent vegetative states, have this basic or fundamental right to life. But we rarely ask such questions about ourselves.
Do you have a fundamental right to life? I’m going to argue, contrary to Catholic doctrine, that you don’t. It turns out your right to life just isn’t all that fundamental.
It’s pretty obvious that you have some kind of moral right not to be intentionally killed, provided that you don’t do something that justifies somebody’s offing you — attacking them, for instance. It’s less obvious, though, just how basic or fundamental this right is. What does it even mean to say that some rights are more basic or fundamental than others?
Philosophers such as Henry Shue have noted that unless you first protect some rights, you don’t have much of a shot at protecting other rights. Take your right to vote and your right to personal safety. If we didn’t first protect you from aggression by the state or your fellow citizens, you probably wouldn’t be able to exercise your right to vote. In this way, the right to personal safety is more fundamental than the right to vote.
Per this way of thinking about fundamental rights, Catholic doctrine seems entirely correct: You cannot enjoy any of your other rights — your rights to liberty and the pursuit of happiness, for example — unless other people respect your right to life by refraining from killing you.
But is this the only way to think about basic or fundamental rights, and about the right to life in particular?
Another way to think about how rights might be basic or fundamental can be illustrated by thinking about, first, your right not to be enslaved, and, second, your right to autonomy, which is roughly your right to live your life according to your own values and choices.
Which is more basic or fundamental: your right against enslavement or your right to autonomy?
The sense of “fundamental” given above suggests that the right against enslavement is more fundamental, for you couldn’t expect to live a life by your own lights if people were free to enslave you whenever they wanted.
In another sense, however, it seems like the right to autonomy is more basic or fundamental than the right not to be enslaved. What makes the right against enslavement so worthwhile? What’s so bad about failing to recognize and protect this right? One of the major reasons being a slave is so undesirable is that it keeps you from living your life according to your own values and choices. We might say, then, that your right against enslavement is worth protecting precisely because your right to autonomy is worth protecting.
In other words, if your autonomy weren’t so morally important, that would mean your being enslaved wouldn’t be all that bad.
Of course, it might be that your right against enslavement derives from your moral right to the fruits of your labor, or some other right besides the right to autonomy. My point, though, is that there is an intuitive sense that rights might qualify as fundamental because they explain why other rights are worth protecting.
Now, ask yourself: Just how fundamental is your right to life?
As it turns out, not especially fundamental. It seems that our lives are worth protecting not because it’s so great that our biological processes keep going but rather because not being killed is necessary for us to do a lot of the things we want to do, to interact with people we care about and to get pleasure out of our experiences. That is, our right to life is worth protecting only to the extent that it protects our rights to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But if that’s correct, I don’t see why your right to life would be much worth protecting if you were still a fetus, or if you were in a persistent vegetative state, as the Catholic Church maintains.
Jake Earl is a doctoral student in the Department of Philosophy and is managing editor of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal.