The “Right to Life”: It’s Much More Than You Think

The “right to life” is a venerable moral and legal principle that is regularly invoked in debates about abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, and more.   The philosopher John Locke in his Two Treatises of Government (1690) was the first “modern” theorist to assert the idea of self-evident human rights, including “life, liberty and estate” [i.e., property], while the first public/political assertion of a right to life was in the American Declaration of Independence (1776).   Since then it has been codified in a great many other contexts, including most notably the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). 

But if the right to life is widely-recognized as a self-evident moral principle (although it’s often dishonored in practice), it certainly does not end at birth; it extends throughout our lives.  Moreover, it’s a prerequisite for any other rights, including liberty and “the pursuit of happiness” (or property rights, for that matter).  The right to life necessarily also implies a right to the means for life – the wherewithal.  Otherwise this right is meaningless.  Our basic needs are not optional, and almost all of us are dependent upon the “collective survival enterprise” – our economy and society -- to obtain the “goods and services” required for satisfying our basic needs.  Therefore, the right to life imposes upon us a life-long mutual obligation to provide for one another’s basic needs.  This includes reproduction and the nurturance of the next generation.   Accordingly, a necessary corollary to the right to life is a universal “basic needs guarantee.”    

Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments emphasized the importance of doing justice, which he defined as not causing injury to others. “There can be no proper motive for hurting our neighbor.”  The utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham also qualified his signature “pain-pleasure” ethical principle by conceding that our freedom must be constrained by the rule that it “affects the interests of no other persons” besides the actor.   Modern-day libertarians, likewise, generally acknowledge that the exercise of our rights must not cause “harm” to anyone else. (See, for example, philosopher Robert Nozick’s often-cited 1974 book, Anarchy, State and Utopia.)  If our society does not provide for the basic needs of all of its citizens, we are collectively causing harm.   There is no escape route from this conclusion.  Libertarians take note.

We have a collective responsibility for undergirding the right to life by providing the means for life for one another.  This is what the “social contract” means, above all.  The alternative, as the philosopher Thomas Hobbes put it, is “the war of each against all.”  



Peter Corning

Peter Corning is currently the Director of the Institute for the Study of Complex Systems in Seattle, Washington.  He was also a one-time science writer at Newsweek and a professor for many years in the Human Biology Program at Stanford University, along with holding a research appointment in Stanford’s Behavior Genetics Laboratory.  


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