Inalienable Rights: A Plea for Open Options
ABSTRACT: Recent analyses of the concept of inalienable rights (i.e., analyses of the inalienable rights to life) transmute these rights into restrictions on the choices of individuals who possess the rights. In this paper I argue that such construals are counter-intuitive, and incompatible with the modern notion of rights as positive benefits to be enjoyed by those who possess them. I offer an alternative (somewhat Lockean) view which proposes that inalienable rights be regarded as entitlements to discretionary options, options the objects of which need not be chosen. To flesh out the theory, such rights (construed as discretionary options) are distinguished from absolute rights, from alienable rights, and from some kinds of indefeasible human rights. I point to several advantages of the open options account of inalienable rights, including the fact that inalienable rights construed as open options are rights that may provide grounds for calling oppressive governments to account, while at the same time protecting areas of freedom which make the possession of the rights worthwhile rather than burdensome. A concluding appeal suggests that the open options view of inalienable rights awaits and encourages the development of theories which bolster modern intuitions concerning the plausibility of affirming individuated, comprehensive, desirable, and universally applicable human rights.
In recent philosophical literature one justification for placing restraints on individuals has been based paradoxically on the notion that those individuals possess basic inalienable rights to liberty and life. It has been argued, for example, that if one has an inalienable right to 0, then there is a duty not to interfere with one's access to 0 (a duty not alleviated by one's preferences alone). It follows that (A) one is not, on grounds of one’s preferences alone, justified in divesting oneself of 0, and that (B) one is not, on grounds of one’s preferences alone, justified in seeking the aid of others in divesting oneself of 0.
It follows that if Sue and Bill have inalienable rights to life, they have a moral obligation to opt for life and, therefore, are not acting in a morally defensible way if they, on grounds of their preferences alone, attempt to persuade others to assist them in comfortably ending their lives. When the notion of the inalienable right to life is construed in the way indicated above, only persons other than the rightholder may make morally permissible decisions concerning the shortening or prolonging of rightholders' lives. And this is held to be the case even if, for example, Bill's and Sue's lives are, from their own points of view, fruitless, torturous, and simply not worth living.
Most views of inalienable rights that entail either (A) or (B) do say that all rights can be overridden, and so recognize situations in which suicide, euthanasia, restriction of liberty, and deprivation of...