PM Pick

The Myth of the Right to Life

Sam Vaknin

Public hospitals, state pension schemes, and police forces may be needed in order to fulfill society's obligations to prolong, maintain, and improve our lives, but fulfill them they must.

I. The Right to Life

Generations of malleable Israeli children are brought up on the story of the misnamed Jewish settlement Tel-Hai ("Mount of Life"), Israel's Alamo. There, among the picturesque valleys of the Galilee, a one-armed hero named Joseph Trumpeldor is said to have died, eight decades ago, from an Arab stray bullet. He died mumbling: "It is good to die for our country." Judaism is dubbed "A Teaching of Life" — but it would seem that the sanctity of life can and does take a back seat to some overriding values.

The right to life — at least the life of human beings — is a rarely questioned fundamental moral principle. In Western cultures, it is assumed to be inalienable and indivisible (i.e., monolithic). Yet, it is neither. Even if we accept the axiomatic, and therefore arbitrary, source of this right, we are still faced with intractable dilemmas. All said, the right to life may be nothing more than a cultural construct, dependent on social mores, historical contexts, and exegetic systems.

Rights, whether moral or legal, impose obligations or duties on third parties towards the right-holder. One has a right against other people and thus can prescribe to them certain obligatory behaviors and proscribe certain acts or omissions. Rights and duties are two sides of the same Janus-like ethical coin.

This duality confuses people. They often erroneously identify rights with their attendant duties or obligations, with the morally decent, or even with the morally permissible. One's rights inform other people how they must behave towards another, not how they should or ought to act morally. Moral behavior is not dependent on the existence of a right. Obligations are.

To complicate matters further, many apparently simple and straightforward rights are amalgams of more basic moral or legal principles. To treat such rights as unities is to mistreat them.

Take the right to life. It is a compendium of no less than eight distinct rights: the right to be brought to life, the right to be born, the right to have one's life maintained, the right not to be killed, the right to have one's life saved, the right to save one's life (wrongly restricted to the right to self-defense), the right to terminate one's life, and the right to have one's life terminated.

None of these rights is self-evident, or unambiguous, or universal, or immutable, or automatically applicable. It is safe to say, therefore, that these rights are not primary as hitherto believed — but derivative.

The Right to be Brought to Life

In most moral systems, including all major religions and Western legal methodologies, it is life that gives rise to rights. The dead have rights only because of the existence of the living. Where there is no life there are no rights. Stones have no rights (though many animists would find this statement abhorrent). Hence the vitriolic debate about cloning, which involves denuding an unfertilized egg of its nucleus. Is there life in an egg or a sperm cell?

That something exists does not necessarily imply that it harbors life. Sand exists and it is inanimate. But what about things that exist and have the potential to develop life? No one disputes the existence of eggs and sperms or their capacity to grow alive.

Is the potential to be alive a legitimate source of rights? Does the egg have any rights, or, at the very least, the right to be brought to life (the right to become or to be) and thus to acquire rights? The much trumpeted right to acquire life pertains to an entity, which exists but is not alive: an egg. It is, therefore, an unprecedented kind of right. Had such a right existed, it would have implied an obligation or duty to give life to the unborn and the not yet conceived.

Clearly, life manifests, at the earliest, when an egg and a sperm unite at the moment of fertilization. Life is not a potential; it is a process triggered by an event. An unfertilized egg is neither a process nor an event. It does not even possess the potential to become alive unless and until it is fertilized.

The potential to become alive is not the ontological equivalent of actually being alive. A potential life cannot give rise to rights and obligations. The transition from potential to being is not trivial, nor is it automatic, or inevitable, or independent of context. Atoms of various elements have the potential to become an egg (or, for that matter, a human being), yet no one would claim that they are an egg (or a human being), or that they should be treated as such (i.e., with the same rights and obligations).

The Right to be Born

While the right to be brought to life deals with potentials, the right to be born deals with actualities. When one or two adults voluntarily cause an egg to be fertilized by a sperm cell with the explicit intent and purpose of creating another life, the right to be born crystallizes. The voluntary and premeditated action of said adults amounts to a contract with the embryo, or rather, with society, which stands in for the embryo.

Henceforth, the embryo acquires the entire panoply of human rights: the right to be born, to be fed, sheltered, to be emotionally nurtured, to get an education, and so on. But what if the fertilization was either involuntary (rape) or unintentional("accidental" pregnancy)? Is the embryo's successful acquisition of rights dependent upon the nature of the conception? We deny criminals their loot as "fruits of the poisoned tree". Why not deny an embryo his life if it is the outcome of a crime? The conventional response — that the embryo did not commit the crime or conspire in it — is inadequate. We would deny the poisoned fruits of crime to innocent bystanders, as well. For example, would we allow a passerby to freely spend cash thrown out of an escape vehicle following a robbery?

Even if we agree that the embryo has a right to be kept alive, it cannot be held against his violated mother. It cannot oblige her to harbor this patently unwanted embryo. If it could survive outside the womb, this would have solved the moral dilemma. But it is dubious, to say the least, that it has a right to go on using the mother's body, or resources, or to burden her in any way in order to sustain its own life.

The Right to Have One's Life Maintained

This leads to a more general quandary. To what extent can one use other people's bodies, their property, their time, their resources and to deprive them of pleasure, comfort, material possessions, income, or any other thing, in order to maintain one's life? Even if it were possible in reality, it is indefensible to maintain that I have a right to sustain, improve, or prolong my life at another's expense. I cannot demand, though I can morally expect, even a trivial and minimal sacrifice from another in order to prolong my life. I have no right to do so.

Of course, the existence of an implicit, let alone explicit, contract between myself and another party would change the picture. The right to demand sacrifices commensurate with the provisions of the contract would then crystallize and create corresponding duties and obligations. No embryo has a right to sustain its life, maintain, or prolong it at his mother's expense. This is true regardless of how insignificant the sacrifice required of her is. Yet by knowingly and intentionally conceiving the embryo, the mother can be said to have signed a contract with it. The contract causes the right of the embryo to demand such sacrifices from his mother to crystallize. It also creates corresponding duties and obligations of the mother towards her embryo.

We often find ourselves in a situation where we do not have a given right against other individuals, but we do possess this very same right against society. Society owes us what no constituent-individual does. Thus, we all have a right to sustain our lives, maintain, prolong, or even improve them at society's expense no matter how major and significant the resources required. Public hospitals, state pension schemes, and police forces may be needed in order to fulfill society's obligations to prolong, maintain, and improve our lives, but fulfill them they must.

Still, each one of us can sign a contract with society, implicitly or explicitly, and abrogate this right. One can volunteer to join the army. Such an act constitutes a contract in which the individual assumes the duty or obligation to give up his or her life.

The Right not to be Killed

It is commonly agreed that every person has the right not to be killed unjustly. Admittedly, what is just and what is unjust is determined by an ethical calculus or a social contract, both which are constantly in flux.

Still, even if we assume an Archimedean immutable point of moral reference — does A's right not to be killed mean that third parties are to refrain from enforcing the rights of other people against A? what if the only way to right wrongs committed by A against others was to kill A? — the moral obligation to right wrongs is about restoring the rights of the wronged. If the continued existence of A is predicated on the repeated and continuous violation of the rights of others, and these other people object to it, then A must be killed if that is the only way to right the wrong and re-assert the rights of A's victims.

The Right to have One's Life Saved

There is no such right because there is no moral obligation or duty to save a life. That people believe otherwise demonstrates the muddle between the morally commendable, desirable, and decent ("ought", "should") and the morally obligatory, the result of other people's rights ("must"). In some countries, the obligation to save a life is codified in the law of the land. But legal rights and obligations do not always correspond to moral rights and obligations or give rise to them.

The Right to Save One's Own Life

One has a right to save one's life by exercising self-defense or otherwise, by taking certain actions or by avoiding them. Judaism, as well as other religious, moral, and legal systems, accepts that one has the right to kill a pursuer who knowingly and intentionally intends to take one's life. Hunting down Osama bin-Laden in the wilds of Afghanistan is, therefore, morally acceptable (though not morally mandatory).

But does one have the right to kill an innocent person who unknowingly and unintentionally threatens to take one's life? An embryo sometimes threatens the life of the mother. Does she have a right to take its life? What about an unwitting carrier of the Ebola virus; do we have a right to terminate her life? For that matter, do we have a right to terminate her life even if there is nothing she could have done about it had she known about her condition?

The Right to Terminate One's Life

There are many ways to terminate one's life: self sacrifice, avoidable martyrdom, engaging in life risking activities, refusal to prolong one's life through medical treatment, euthanasia, overdosing and self-inflicted death that is the result of coercion. Like suicide, in all these, bar the last, a foreknowledge of the risk of death is present coupled with its acceptance. Does one have a right to take one's life? The answer is: it depends. Certain cultures and societies encourage suicide. Both Japanese kamikaze and Jewish martyrs were extolled for their suicidal actions. Certain professions are knowingly life threatening; soldiers, firemen, policemen. Certain industries. like the manufacture of armaments, cigarettes, and alcohol, boost overall mortality rates.

In general, suicide is commended when it serves social ends, enhances the cohesion of the group, upholds its values, multiplies its wealth, or defends it from external and internal threats. Social structures and human collectives such as empires, countries, firms, bands, institutions often commit suicide. This is considered to be a healthy process.

Thus, suicide came to be perceived as a social act. The flip side of this perception is that life is communal property. Society has appropriated the right to foster suicide or to prevent it. It condemned individual entrepreneurship. Suicide, according to Thomas Aquinas, was unnatural. It harmed the community and violated God's property rights.

In Judeo-Christian tradition, God is the owner of all souls. The soul is on deposit with us. The very right to use it, for however short a period, is a divine gift. Suicide, therefore, amounts to an abuse of God's possession. Blackstone, the venerable codifier of British Law, concurred. The state, according to him, has a right to prevent and to punish suicide and attempted suicide. Suicide is self-murder, he wrote, and, therefore, a grave felony. In certain paternalistic countries, this still is the case.

The Right to Have One's Life Terminated

The right to have one's life terminated at will (euthanasia), is subject to social, ethical, and legal strictures. In some countries, such as the Netherlands, it is legal (and socially acceptable) to have one's life terminated with the help of third parties given a sufficient deterioration in the quality of life and given the imminence of death. One has to be of sound mind and will one's death knowingly, intentionally, and forcefully.

II. Issues in the Calculus of Rights

The Hierarchy of Rights

In Western moral and legal systems the right to life supersedes all other rights. It overrules the right to one's body, to comfort, to the avoidance of pain, or to ownership of property. The amount of dilemmas and controversies surrounding the right to life is, therefore, surprising.

When there is a clash between equally potent rights — for instance, the conflicting rights to life of two people — we can decide among them randomly(by flipping a coin, or casting dice). Alternatively, we can add and subtract rights in a somewhat macabre arithmetic. Thus, if the continued life of an embryo or a fetus threatens the mother's life — that is, assuming, controversially, that both of them have an equal right to life — we can decide to kill the fetus. By adding to the mother's right to life her right to her own body we outweigh the fetus' right to life.

The Difference between Killing and Letting Die

Counterintuitively, there is a moral gulf between killing (taking a life) and letting die (not saving a life). The right not to be killed is undisputed. There is no right to have one's own life saved. Where there is a right — and only where there is one — there is an obligation. Thus, while there is an obligation not to kill, there is no obligation to save a life.

Killing the Innocent

The life of a Victim (V) is sometimes threatened by the continued existence of an innocent person (IP), a person who cannot be held guilty of V's ultimate death even though he caused it. IP is not guilty of dispatching V because he hasn't intended to kill V, nor was he aware that V will die due to his actions or continued existence.

Again, it boils down to ghastly arithmetic. We definitely should kill IP to prevent V's death if IP is going to die anyway and shortly. The remaining life of V, if saved, should exceed the remaining life of IP, if not killed. If these conditions are not met, the rights of IP and V should be weighted and calculated to yield a decision (see Abortion and the Sanctity of Human Life by Baruch A. Brody).

Utilitarianism , a form of crass moral calculus, calls for the maximization of utility (life, happiness, pleasure). The lives, happiness, or pleasure of the many outweigh the life, happiness, or pleasure of the few. If by killing IP we save the lives of two or more people and there is no other way to save their lives, it is morally permissible.

But surely V has right to self-defense, regardless of any moral calculus of rights? Not so. Taking another's life to save one's own is rarely justified, though such behavior cannot be condemned. Here we have the flip side of the confusion we opened with: understandable and perhaps inevitable behavior (self defense) is mistaken for a moral right. If I were V, I would kill IP unhesitatingly. Moreover, I would have the understanding and sympathy of everyone. But this does not mean that I had a right to kill IP. Which brings us to September 11.

Collateral Damage

What should prevail: the imperative to spare the lives of innocent civilians or the need to safeguard the lives of fighter pilots? Precision bombing puts such pilots at great risk. Avoiding this risk usually results in civilian casualties ("collateral damage"). This moral dilemma is often "solved" by applying, explicitly or implicitly, the principle of "over-riding affiliation". We find the two facets of this principle in Jewish sacred texts: "One is close to oneself" and "Your city's poor denizens come first (with regards to charity)".

Some moral obligations are universal, such as thou shalt not kill. They are related to one's position as a human being. Other moral values and obligations arise from one's affiliations. Yet there is also a hierarchy of moral values and obligations. The ones related to one's position as a human being are, actually, the weakest. They are overruled by moral values and obligations related to one's affiliations. The imperative "thou shalt not kill (another human being)" is easily over-ruled by the moral obligation to kill for one's country. The imperative "thou shalt not steal" is superseded by one's moral obligation to spy for one's nation.

This leads to another startling conclusion: there is no such thing as a self-consistent moral system. Moral values and obligations often contradict each other and almost always conflict with universal moral values and obligations. In the examples above, killing (for one's country) and stealing (for one's nation) are moral obligations. Yet they contradict the universal moral value of the sanctity of life and the universal moral obligation not to kill. Far from being a fundamental and immutable principle, the right to life, it would seem, is merely a convenient implement in the hands of society.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
9

If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

Related Articles Around the Web

People aren't cheering Supergirl on here. They're not thanking her for her heroism, or even stopping to take a selfie.

It's rare for any hero who isn't Superman to gain the kind of credibility that grants them the implicitly, unflinching trust of the public. In fact, even Superman struggles to maintain that credibility and he's Superman. If the ultimate paragon of heroes struggles with maintaining the trust of the public, then what hope does any hero have?

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image