In this post I briefly mentioned a conversation I had with one American guy on my travels; a nice, smart and well-spoken guy who was taking a short holiday in Europe in-between military training activities. A friend reading the post picked up on the casual mention of this conversation and asked me the following question in the comments:
Hey Susi, why don’t (or didn’t) you believe in a human’s inherent right to life? Just curious.
When I started this reply I was going to put it as a comment following his, but then it got longer and longer and I realised that perhaps it should be a post of its own. I was reluctant to make it one because there are a ton of other “real” posts I have been intending on completing, and because this is a highly personal topic. I’m very opinionated but at the same time I don’t want it to seem as if I’m trying to convert others to my point of view. You can take it or leave it or turn it into a paper crane to hang up from your ceiling. To be honest it does bother me that I could hurt someone’s feelings by saying what I say, what I hope is that this is only short-lived and can be put into perspective. Of course if anyone finds what I have said off-base or cruel or stupid, you can tell me personally or in the comments.
Why did I make it a post if I was really so worried it would be offensive? Well mainly because I did want to leave it in the comments section as a public answer to his question, yet at the same time I was suspicious of my desire to leave it there in this old post that people who usually read my blog probably wouldn’t see again. It indicated to me that I cared enough about this question to want to deal with it openly, yet also felt like I needed to hide it by burying it somewhere where people who know me wouldn’t find it. Totally disingenuous.
Why don’t I believe in a human’s inherent right to life?
This basically comes down to what one means by saying something is a right. My issue with talk of rights is how it seems to be based on a sense of entitlement. I really don’t feel that we are entitled to anything as humans in the world, nor as people in society.
Saying that I don’t think someone can have a right to life doesn’t mean that I think someone has a right to murder either. And it doesn’t mean that I can say that someone else has no special right to life while still believing that I myself have that right.
I don’t have a right to life. I just found myself here one day. And I quite like it for the moment so I personally want to keep living.
My question about rights is…. Where does the right come from? Where does the obligation for someone else to respect this right come from? A right is supposed to be unassailable, but how do we get such absolute certainty that what we call a right is not actually our own value judgement? To call something a right to justify what we want to do is the easiest thing in the world. “It’s my right as a member of this country to protect my family and future well-being by helping to get rid of the immigrants.” “It’s my right as a woman to throw a fit at you this time of the month.” “It’s my right as a parent to tell you what to do until you move out.”
In my view, there are no rights. How I choose to see things is in terms of agreements, decisions and negotiations. For me it has to do with choice. To explain behaviour, rules and beliefs in terms of rights is a cop-out. I would explain behaviour in terms of external, social and biological influences, psychology, habit, history, intellectually-reasoned belief or argument, simple preference; plus other possible ways of explaining I can’t think of right now. This tells people where I’m coming from and why I’m allowing something to occur, which helps them to decide the relevance of my behaviour or choices to them; whereas saying it’s simply a right that I or others have gives them next to nothing to use for themselves. Using the language of rights is a way to end the discussion. It’s saying “this is the final answer, so there.” We are meant to respect it without question or challenge. Having to respect something I can’t challenge always makes me suspicious.
So although I don’t believe in an inherent right to life for humans, that doesn’t mean I think that humans should be wiped out or that there is no worth to other humans or to being human myself. I think humans shouldn’t kill each other not because everyone has a right to life, but because I wouldn’t want to live in a world where no one cared about anyone else. I think life is much easier and nicer when we make efforts to co-operatively work together and take care of each other. I know that even if I don’t think I have an inherent right to life, I do like being able to be alive and so would hope that someone else wouldn’t choose to take my life away. If I feel that way about myself, then I wouldn’t assume that I could take someone else’s life away either. I guess ultimately I think of existence as something really big and outside of my comprehension or control, so I personally wouldn’t feel I had justification in deliberately setting out to make decisions on who deserves to live or die. What I want is for people to be happy, free and free to be themselves, and I wish I could share the amazing things I’ve gotten in my experience of life.
It’s similar to how I see the law. I follow traffic rules not for the mere fact that they are rules or laws but because they have been set in place for a purpose that is beneficial to me and most others. I don’t go about trying to kill or hurt people because that would make me someone I personally wouldn’t want to encounter myself. Of course me not doing it doesn’t stop someone else from doing it to me at any point in time. And even if I don’t think I am capable of deciding that someone else doesn’t deserve to live, I still technically have the ability to kill another person. I don’t see how talking about rights stops or changes this.
Rights are human creations, not natural world creations. If something really were a die-hard right then in my eyes there would be nothing we humans could do against it. It is sad when someone loses someone close to them who was young or in an unexpected way. But they didn’t necessarily have a natural right to live to 80. What makes it sad is that perhaps they wanted to live to 80 and didn’t get that, or that you wanted them to live to 80 and didn’t get that. People die at different ages in different ways all the time. We make changes in the world to protect each other because we want that protection for ourselves and those that we care about. Because we want life. Why can’t we say that instead, we want life. Not life is owed to us.
Why not make the message to a murderer “I really despise you and want to punish you because you took something important and good from my life and that I can now never get back, you selfish fucking prick.” Rather than “I now have the right to kill or punish you since you transgressed this other person’s right to life.”
I can admire talk of rights as creating a picture of human ideals and aspirations, particularly when talk of rights supports a vision of equality, fairness and compassion. But eventually I need to see the meaning and usefulness of the things that we say we believe.
What is the importance of talk of rights anyway? I try my hardest not to accidentally kill someone, the best example I can give is by being careful when driving. I also spend time thinking about how my choices and future choices might impact the lives and welfare of people in the wider world. I’m not a selfless saint but I genuinely try to think about and care for others the best I can. Coming from that position I saw a great irony in the fact that this guy was both a Christian and debating in favour of an inherent right to life, yet in the American military looking to be posted to Iraq. Granted he was about to be put into a role that was supposed to involve getting to know Iraqis rather than fighting them, but as he acknowledged anything could happen, he was trained for combat like any other soldier, and he was under the command of higher-ups and the institution itself anyway. He was well aware that killing was a part of what he had chosen to be involved with. He had always wanted to be in the army. What does humans’ inherent right to life mean when it can be superceded by a nation’s desire or right to war with other nations for whatever reason?
As a Christian he linked his belief in humans’ inherent right to life with his belief in God. I am not Christian, not religious in any sense though I’m not a complete existentialist either – even if I don’t expressly believe in some omniscient greater being I do feel a sense of being part of something bigger than myself. I don’t feel “alone” in the world very often. But I think this is one of my problems with Christianity, that it creates this assumption about the superiority of humans. Sure they use that same old tack of saying that with superiority and authority comes responsibility, in a similar vein to how various other groups might justify sexism and racism and socioeconomic inequality, but the basic idea is that humans have certain entitlements above and beyond anything else in this world. I can’t buy that we are inherently worth more than all the billions of other things we come into contact with, use, love and need on earth (or in the universe).
I don’t think that in our discussion we got to the matter of whether a pine tree has the same inherent right to life as a human does, so it’s possible that he would have said yes it does, it is one of God’s creations as well. But in that case we return again to the meaning of the language of rights. Does that not mean that we have been unthinkably evil, or wrong, in felling pine trees willy nilly for our own desires? What does it mean if you break a right – does that make you evil, or wrong, or stupid, or cruel, or disobedient? Is there certain, inevitable punishment or consequence for transgressing a right? If not, what does it matter?
A right as a goal, an aim and an ideal, that I can go for. But a right as something to take for granted I don’t see the point in. A right where someone is complaining or whining about “oh but it’s a RIGHT, it should ALREADY be that way” or where someone is using it as ammunition in an argument to justify their plans or perspective “don’t you think people have a RIGHT to x, y, and z? How can you even think otherwise?” – all this to me is a waste of time. There is no room for movement, for progress, for truly being able to help make a bad situation better when you assert that your viewpoint is indomitable.
Another thought I started wondering about as I was writing this was about giving birth. Obviously we do make decisions about life and death. I just don’t see the point in relating this to talk of rights. If I were to have children I wouldn’t frame it in terms of it being because “they have a right to life” or “I have a right to bring forth life”, it would be because I wanted to have them – to have around, to learn from, to have the experience of watching people grow, to share and pass things onto them and whatnot. I can doesn’t mean I deserve. Or even “technically I should be able to” doesn’t mean I deserve. (e.g. a woman should technically be able to have children but to me no woman is especially entitled to it. It’s a general property of being a woman but it’s not a 100% guarantee.)