“Because to take away a man’s freedom of choice, even his freedom to make the wrong choice, is to manipulate him as though he were a puppet and not a person.” ~Madeleine L’Engle
Property rights . . . Human rights. Let’s take these matters one after the other.
Basically what do we mean by “property rights”? These are rights one exercises over what s/he deems to be her/his properties—over tangible or intangible entities that s/he possesses and calls her/his own. One’s rights over them could consist (without being exhaustive) of the right to keep them in an appropriate location; the right to protect and defend them from harm or destruction; the right to conceal them from public exposure; the right to share them with others; the right to exchange them for something else; the right to give them up or away; the right to get rid of them; the right to dispose them off; the right to destroy them, among others. But what about “human rights”; do we consider them as properties? It is only if—and only if—we could prove that human rights are properties that we can claim property rights over them.
Now, what are “human rights”? Are these rights generally inherent or otherwise in our humanity? Are these rights necessary factors that make us human and hence define our humanity or are they states of affairs that emanate from the human condition but do not necessarily define our humanity? In other words, can we still be considered human without these so-called human rights or even without one or some of these rights we may still be considered human? Or are there—and thus we must distinguish between—human rights that make us human, without which we lose our humanity and human rights that even without them our humanity is not lost? The former cannot be considered as properties that we HAVE but conditions of what we ARE—our very BEING—while the latter could be construed as properties that we have and do not necessarily deprive us of our being human even if we lose them. To the former type, the issue of having property rights does not apply whereas to the latter it surely does. The former being human rights that define our humanity are inalienable, absolute, incontrovertible, undeniable, non-negotiable. The latter being human rights acquired in the course of experiencing the socio-cultural dimension of human existence are viewed as “properties” that we are supposed to uphold, keep, protect and defend or fight for in times when they are at risk or endangered.
In view of these considerations, we ask the question: What are these intrinsic human rights that determine and confirm our BEING human? I am of the opinion that the first is our right to biological life. As living human beings, the right to life is most basic. Human life in the biological sense is not viewed as a property (in the sense we use the term in the context of the present discussion) but as the foundation—the very fundamental underpinning—of human existence for how can we affirm the meaningfulness of such existence without a consciousness that is only made possible in the being of a living human entity? We cannot therefore apply to the right to life as a human right the issue of property rights. In other words, we cannot appropriate a property right over the right to life as a human right. Human life in the biological sense is not a human property acquired through socio-cultural interaction. That is why, whether we believe in a deity or not, human life has its own dignity and for the theist, the term that gives more impact to its meaningfulness is sanctity. To a theist, human life is sacred.
We may look at human life tentatively and superficially as a property that we can own but more seriously and intensely, we get to the paradoxical point that we own it in a sense but in another, it is not our property because if it were, we could also claim as a “human right” the right to get rid of it, to destroy it, to dispose it off, to eliminate it. We have no property right over and above the inherent human right called right to life. The modern controversy, however, that puts this principle into question lies in the ethical issue of whether it is moral (or immoral) to clinically administer euthanasia and abortion. This ethical issue, being yet at the stage of controversy, is being argued and debated on in various fora, both professional and casual. The other side of the divide asserts that like any other human rights, the right to life is a human right to which we have a property right and hence, the right to death is likewise affirmed along the way. To this, I beg to disagree.
Another intrinsic human right over which we have no property right is the right to freedom of the will. We basically say that we humans have free will but beyond having it, free will is a defining factor of our humanity. In philosophical terms, a human individual is not only a possessor of free will but s/he IS free will. We are not only organisms of biological instincts passive to external stimuli and carried by the ebb and flow of the changing seasons but each of us is a Dasein (according to Heidegger) or Existenz (that is nobler than Heidegger’s Dasein, according to Karl Jaspers) endowed with a free will that defies instincts and hence significantly disconnects us from the animal world for we are not only conscious but we are conscious of our consciousness. It is from this human self-consciousness that free will issues out not as a property but as the deciding factor that discriminates on things to own as properties and those that are not. In other words, one’s right to freedom of the will is the limit of property rights and human rights to which we ought to have property rights.
Like the right to life which is a human right to which we have no property right as an ETHICAL option to get rid of, we neither have the property right to the right to freedom of the will in LOGICAL terms because we cannot choose to get rid of it without exercising the very right to freedom of the will to get rid of it. Choosing to get rid of the right to freedom of the will is an act of the same right and hence is self-stultifying.
The right to justice is another right that is intrinsically human over which we cannot exercise property right. It is not a property that we can own and get rid of and still retain our humanity. Sans right to justice, our humanity is in peril. Like the two intrinsic rights discussed above, the right to justice similarly defines the human condition. It is not a value that may be derived from the outside and be taken as a “property”; it is an ethical virtue that strengthens the fiber of the uniqueness of our humanity. In conditions where some people are exposed to dominant politico-economic forces that have created situations of injustice, they inevitably suffer extremely to the point of the threat of death and even of death itself. The people in such conditions have been robbed of their right to justice, an innate human right that without which the human individual at least and the society where s/he is located at most are deprived of the human character. Succinctly, robbing humanity of the right to justice is an act of dehumanization.
There is however a certain variety of human rights that could be viewed as properties to which we could exercise property rights. These are human rights that if we don’t exercise do not necessarily render a person less human. Nevertheless, these human rights are never less significant. Like the intrinsic human rights we have earlier discussed, this second variety of human rights consists of very important rights to individuals that need to be esteemed, upheld and protected in their personal capacity. These are human rights we may exercise or waiver without any violation of our moral integrity. Without being exhaustive, among these rights are: the right to formal education, the right to gainful employment, the right of domicile, the right to practice one’s religion of choice, the right of suffrage, the right of speech, among others. To these human rights, we have property rights.
© Ruel F. Pepa, 30 April 2013