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Where My Nose Begins

August 3rd, 2011 by Jim May · 4 Comments · Uncategorized

At Noodlefood, Diana Hsieh asks the following question: “Does the Right to Life Trump Property Rights?

Diana rejects the notion implicit[*] in that phrasing, that “trumps” implies a conflict between these two rights — a notion which Objectivism flatly rejects, for reasons explained by her and by Dr. Leonard Leikoff in quotes supplied by Diana.  Taking the meaning of “trump” as “winning a conflict or fight”, I agree with her.  Rights cannot logically conflict, simply because there can be no such thing as the right to violate a right.

The key concepts that I use to understand and explain rights in practice, are as follows.

1.  Rights are logically self-limiting.

2.  In any context involving an apparent conflict of rights, the most fundamental principle involved is the ones that applies.  When this happens, the derivative rights become logically inapplicable; they cannot contradict or override their logical “parent”.

The first one is how I refute the notion that truly “absolute” freedom includes the freedom to murder etc. and that society must therefore curb, limit and “balance” this “freedom” in order for society to function.  This annoyingly common falsehood finds its root in the Kantian concept of “absolutism” as being of infinite extent and context-free, as exemplified in his well-known “principle” that lying is *always* wrong“.  That *always* is your tipoff, right there, as it means “regardless of any context”.  As happens in ethics classes every year, it isn’t hard to come up with examples of how such an “absolutist” viewpoint can be shown to result in profoundly anti-life consequences in the real world; from there it’s a short step to the declaration that truth, while a high value, is not an *absolute* one.  So, compromise and “Balance” are necessary, society must set the “boundaries”, e.g. the prohibition against murder.

As Diana puts it:  “Of all the errors in modern politics, the idea that people’s rights routinely conflict is probably the most pernicious of all. It opens the door to any and all rights violations — from OSHA to Medicare to the ADA to the Drug War — because when logic is removed from politics, it’s deuces wild. (Emphasis mine.)

A significant result of this confusion is the conflation of moral right with mere physical capacity.  Freedom, remember, is a moral principle sanction men’s freedom of action in a social context.  Physical capacity, on the other hand, consists of physical facts about living entities.  It does not follow from men’s physical capacity to murder, that they are morally “free” to do it.  Rather, the actions which men are free to do, are a subset of what they are capable of doing — a subset defined by the internal logic of individual rights: if a man’s right to life is grounded in his nature as a man, then ALL men possessed of that nature, have that right.

Society, therefore, cannot (and shouldn’t try) to “limit” or suppress the “freedom to murder” because there is no such thing.  It is not society that sets that boundary — it is the moral principle itself which does this, by its internal logic.  Individual rights are thusly logically self-limiting, and self-constraining.  Society’s role, properly constituted, is simply to recognize and enforce these logical, moral boundaries between men — not to author them.

The second concept pertains to the expression in morality of fundamentality.  Consider the following example:  a man takes his baseball bat and beats his neighbor to death.  The police arrest him and haul him into court.  His defense?  “It was MY baseball bat, your honor.  My property rights are absolute, so you have no right to interfere with what I choose to do with my property.”  The root error is the “always” view of absolutism, but what is the fallacy involved with this contradiction?  The stolen concept fallacy.

Recall that in any situation involving two or more people interacting, the possibility of the use of force arises.  The answer to that problem is the moral principle of the right to life, from which the prohibition against the initiation of the use of force directly arises.  As this baseball bat murder is a direct violation of the victims right to life, issues of property rights become logically inapplicable in such situations (they do not “lose a conflict”).   As with the “freedom to murder”, property rights simply don’t go that far.  Again, it is the internal logic involved which sets this “boundary”.  As the right of property is a derivative of and therefore logically dependent upon the right to life, it cannot conflict with, constrain, or otherwise override it’s logical “parent” — that road only goes one way: it is the fundamental right which necessitates and sets the context for the derivative right, which can only ever be a subset of the fundamental.

The derivatives themselves arise as applications of the fundamental in ever more special circumstances; property rights, for example, are the application of the right to life in a context involving the right of use and disposal of the finite physical objects and substances which are involved with human life.

All of this comes together in the understanding that there can be no such thing as the right to violate rights.  In Dr. Peikoff’s example of the shipwreck survivor who swims to an island only to have the owner tell him that he can’t come ashore, actual life is at stake.  It is not a violation of the island owner’s property rights if the survivor ignores him and comes ashore anyway — the survivor’s right to life does not override or “trump” the owner’s property rights.  Rather, the owner’s property rights are simply inapplicable in that situation; they are not involved at all.  To put that another way, the owner’s property rights do not include the right to kill the survivor by barring his access to the only safe place available.  The logic here is the same as in the example of the baseball bat murderer.

Only *one* right is applicable to any given situation; the most fundamental one directly involved.  Part of doing our moral due diligence lies in recognizing which rights and principles are involved, and which are logically inapplicable.  And most importantly, it is *logic* which makes this determination — not society, nor law, nor social convention.  Being derivatives of that logic in a properly constituted society, the role of these things is not to define, but only to recognize the logical boundaries of individual rights, and conform themselves thereto as closely as possible.

As the old saying goes, “Your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.”  In the same way that your arm length (as opposed to an external barrier) stops you from *physically* punching a man who is ten feet away, it is the logical boundaries of the right to life and liberty (as opposed to society and the law) which stop you from *morally* punching a man who is two feet away.

I therefore agree with Diana that the right to life does not “trump” any lesser rights, if “trump” is taken in the sense of “winning a fight or conflict”.  As Dr. Peikoff explained, ultimately it’s just the one right, the individual right to life, that is operating in any situation involving the moral interactions of men.

[*] A semantic quibble:  There is another meaning of “trump” as meaning “supersede according to the rules”, in the sense of an ace being “trumped” in a card game.  As I noted to Diana in a comment, if the original speaker meant this sense of the word, then the right to life does “trump” property rights, according to the “rules”, the logic, of the “game”.

4 Comments so far ↓

  • Grant

    In Dr. Peikoff’s example, what causes the ship to sink?

  • DanG

    So can the island / property owner bar the shipwreck survivor from taking his food without permission?

    If yes, and assuming he has no way off the island, the survivor will starve just as surely as if the property owner shot him upon washing ashore. If no, then the island owner will be forced to “live for the sake of another” – obviously not within the bounds of Objectivism…

    I assume there is more to Peikoff’s scenario that gets around this conflict?

  • Inspector


    The example only covers the immediate danger of drowning. It does not go on from there. But if it did, the proper principle is that in emergencies, the normal rules don’t apply the same way. If there’s plenty of food, then all other things being equal, the survivor can owe a bill to be paid later for the food. But only because it is an emergency, presumably not of his own doing.

    If the food is not enough for both of them, then this constitutes an additional emergency, that has to be addressed on its own terms.

    As Grant implies, if the survivor is, say, an enemy spy in a war, who sank the ship that carried the food to the island, then this is a different sort of emergency.

    Emergencies have their own set of considerations, which don’t apply to normal life. That is the key. What other moralities want to convince everyone is that *everything* is *constantly* an emergency, and we must therefore be using a emergency-type thinking at all times. Which is harmful in any number of ways, as evidenced by current events (and world history!).

  • DanG

    Got it. I was not familiar w/Peikoff’s scenario, so I did not know how far he had taken it.

    I am familiar w/Rand’s work however, and am glad to find out that Peikoff hadn’t tried to make any generalized statements beyond simply “coming ashore”. You and I (& Peikoff) clearly find it obvious that no assumptions can be made beyond that point based solely on the initial fact of arrival.

    It is too bad that soooo many people don’t find that to be obvious as well…