The Idea of a Right to Life



In Part Four we have been engaged in a curious enterprise: we have been stating the obvious. We have elaborately maintained that an organism — a mouse or a man — is the (or a) kind of thing which has a good of its own. It is in regard to organisms, we might say, that the very notion of benefit has its home in our language. We have further argued that organisms have a good essentially: where there is life there is hope, even if sometimes of the thinnest or conceptual kind. An individual has thus a good at any stage of life. It cannot be too young to have a welfare. Even a foetal mouse can be harmed. The concept of harm and of having a good may well be difficult in philosophy, but understanding this minimal claim should be easy. And all this said we have rather assumed, as anyone would, that the welfare of a human being (at least) has ‘moral significance’ — that is to say, insofar as we can attach a clear sense to such a made-up abstraction.


Anorexia Nervosa Moral Judgement Capital Punishment Human Dignity Virtue Ethic 
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  1. 3.
    John Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, London: Penguin, 1977. Mackie talks here about ‘ordinary’ moral judgements (pp. 35, 48), but presumably extraordinary moral judgements, e.g. that it is obligatory to stand on one’s head, would be counted in too: they too would come out false according to his ‘error’ theory. Needless to say, one of the judgements defended in this book is that abortion is permissible, though this presumably should have been counted false. It is certainly pretty ordinary. There is a general and obvious difficulty in this comprehensive thesis about moral judgement: the negation of a moral judgement is another moral judgement, and the negation of a falsehood is a truth. The best reply would seem to be as follows. ‘A moral judgement’ in this context is to be taken in a narrow sense, to mean a judgement as to what is obligatory. It is these judgements that are all false. Thus every judgement as to what is permissible, being the negation of a judgement of obligation, is true. This would yield the permissibility of abortion straight away and would save ink.Google Scholar
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  3. 6.
    Michael Tooley, ‘In Defense of Abortion and Infanticide’ reprinted in Michael F. Goodman, ed., What is a Person, Clifton, NJ: Humana Press, 1988, p. 100. It would be unfair to Professor Tooley to talk like this of ‘the usual way’ without mentioning that it is ‘usual’ largely on account of his influence. One can trace this influence on Peter Singer, Joel Feinberg and Ronald Dworkin, and then on through to others who have followed in their wake.Google Scholar
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    A classic example of this worry is to be found of course in Marx’s review ‘On the Jewish Question’: The so-called rights of man… are nothing but the rights of … egoistic man, man separated from other men and the community’; The right of man to freedom is not based on the union of man with man, but on the separation of man from man’ (Karl Marx: Selected Writings, ed. David McLellan, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977, pp. 52 and 53). This not too clear thought has evidently been an inspiration to the modern ‘communitarian’ movement in political philosophy. I am not saying that the communitarians have nothing important to say in this regard. It is perhaps arguable, for example, that we are becoming too litigious. There used indeed to be a pair of crimes, champerty and maintenance, which involved encouraging people to go to law. We should not be surprised to find that such encouragement was frowned upon.Google Scholar
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    Hillel Steiner, An Essay on Rights, Oxford: Blackwell, 1994, p. 245, italics in text. Steiner’s remarks are prefaced by ‘strictly speaking’. Also p. 249: ‘The holders of rights are adult persons.’ One does not have to be able to exercise one’s rights, we are told — one might be too ill, or live too far away. Others can exercise them on one’s behalf. But here (it would seem) one must have authorised someone to act on one’s behalf, and only adults can do this last (see pp. 260–1). When talking about ‘adults’ in this way it is fair to note Steiner’s view that the age of majority tends to be set rather too high (p. 245).Google Scholar
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    It might, however, impress someone who is taken with Life’s Dominion. My account is modelled on Eric Matthews, ‘Paternalism, Care and Autonomy’, in Andrew Grubb, ed., Decision-Making and Problems of Incompetence, Chichester: Wiley, 1994, esp. p. 105.Google Scholar
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    Note that the defence of ‘children’s rights’ which takes the form of saying that many children, particularly older ones, are more or less autonomous choosers is not the only defence in circulation. In particular it is quite different from the more radical view we find in Neil MacCormick’s ‘Children’s Rights: A Test Case for Theories of Right’ (in his Legal Right and Social Democracy, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982). Professor MacCormick suggests that because small, helpless, unchoos-ing children, have rights to care and protection, the more or less adults-only view of rights, turning upon thoughts of protected authentic choices, must be mistaken.Google Scholar
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    H. L. A. Hart, ‘Abortion Law Reform, the English Experience’, Melbourne University Law Review, 1971–72, (Vol. 8, pp. 388–411), p. 399. The thought here is rather similar to the one we find developed in Judith Jarvis Thomson’s ‘A Defense of Abortion’, published around the same time, and which of course does not suppose that a foetus lacks rights.Google Scholar
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    Jan Narveson, ‘Children and Rights’, p. 276. A distinction between obligation to and obligation in respect of was earlier discussed by Michael Tooley in Abortion and Infanticide, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983. pp. 37–8.Google Scholar
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    This kind of case is discussed in Frances Kamm, Creation and Abortion, New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.Google Scholar
  26. See also the pioneering remarks in Baruch Brody, Abortion and the Sanctity of Human Life, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1975, section 2.2, ‘The Mother as Creator’ (especially pp. 32–3). I append an example of popular thinking in regard to the maternal privilege. John Scripps was hanged in Singapore in April 1996. He was a killer who dismembered his victims, having learned the useful trade of butchery while in Albany Prison on the Isle of Wight. His mother complained: ‘These bastards have no right to take my son’s life. I brought him into the world. I am the only person who can take him out of it’ (The Times, 19 April 1996).Google Scholar
  27. 56.
    The killings do not have to be centrally organised — it is sufficient that they be widespread and committed in accordance with some policy. See Kriangsak Kittichaisaree, International Criminal Law, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001, pp. 96–102. Abortion, if it is child-killing, fits this technical requirement rather well incidentally. One might think of the way it is regularly linked to amniocentesis as a routine practice in our hospitals.Google Scholar
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    G. E. M. Anscombe, ‘Murder and the Morality of Euthanasia’ in her Human Life, Action and Ethics, Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2005, p. 266.Google Scholar
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© Christopher Miles Coope 2006

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