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06 February 2012

Rights Are Inalienable But Forfeitable


In my recent Philosophy in Action Webcast discussion of the death penalty, I mentioned Craig Biddle's discussion of the fact that rights are inalienable but forfeitable. As promised, here's footnote 46 of his excellent essay, Ayn Rand's Theory of Rights: The Moral Foundation of a Free Society

... If rights were somehow inherent in man by virtue of his being man, then we could never punish people who violate rights--because using retaliatory force against them would violate the "rights" that they "inherently" have and that they thus always retain by virtue of being human. Because Rand's theory is based on and derived from the observable requirements of man's life, it is not afflicted with contradictions regarding those requirements. On Rand's theory, rights are inalienable, in that others cannot take away or nullify one's rights; but they are also forfeitable, in that one can relinquish one's own rights by violating the rights of others. If and to the extent that a person violates the rights of others, he relinquishes his own rights and may be punished accordingly. His choice to violate rights places him outside the purpose of the principle and thus the scope of its protection. Again, one cannot claim the protection of a principle that one repudiates in action.
If rights were inherent in human nature, based purely on DNA or species-membership, then the advocates of "personhood for zygotes" would be right: the fertilized egg would have a right to life. However, on an objective theory of rights, rights cannot apply until the fetus is biologically separated from the woman. Only then does the fetus -- then a baby -- enter the social context necessary for rights. For further details, see Ari Armstrong's and my recently-published essay, "The Assault on Abortion Rights Undermines All Our Liberties.

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