Our rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness
can only be secured by a state strictly separated from religion

20 October 2008

The Individual and Rights


In a discussion of abortion on my personal blog NoodleFood, William Stoddard offered a particularly clear explanation of why a human must be a biologically separate individual in order to be a person in a comment. In responding to someone who claimed that self-awareness was critical for rights, William wrote:

Aside from the question of self-awareness, the other critical point is that the fetus does not meet a necessary condition for having individual rights: It is not an individual.

Individualism works, ethically, because we can draw a line of separation between individuals. It's possible to benefit one individual without doing so at the expense of another; individual rights provide a legal structure that makes such results not merely possible but reliable. We are not forced to trade off benefits to one individual against injuries to another. And what makes collectivism evil is that it does force such tradeoffs on us.

But if ever there was a case of collectivism in human existence, it's in the relationship between a pregnant woman and her unborn child. The fetus cannot be neutral with respect to the woman carrying it; its very existence alters her hormones, her entire physiology, and her emotional state. Even if the woman wants to be pregnant, it's all too possible, despite the achievements of medicine, for situations to arise where a benefit to the fetus entails harm to the mother, or vice versa, and where it's necessary to decide which benefit is more important. Trying to sort this out by applying the concept of individual rights just doesn't work.

And there's only one decision maker there: the pregnant woman. The fetus lacks sufficient rationality, purposefulness, and self-awareness to make choices. The pregnant woman has to decide where her priorities are. Some pregnant women will choose to take terrifying risks for the chance to have a child, and that's their right; they can say "Price no object" if they want. Others will abort, for whatever reason. Either way, they pay the price of their choices. Having someone else, who doesn't have to pay that price, make the decision for them, or tell them what they can and can't do, cannot be expected to produce better decisions.
William has further comments here.

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