Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Can Dead People Have Rights?

So I've been discussing whether or not future people can have rights, and I've started considering the possibility that they don't. But an interesting parallel occurred to me the other day when I was talking to one of my TA's (not the one from the Glue Man debate). Perhaps we could learn a lot about our relationship with future people by thinking about our relationship with the deceased. There are, of course, obvious differences, but in a lot of ways, the questions that we face when thinking about the deceased are very similar to the ones that we face when we think about future people.

For one thing, it's hard to see how we can really harm the deceased. Ignoring the possibility of their souls existing in some other realm, where they would be able to see what we did, it seems like we could fairly say that people who are deceased no longer exist as persons (that is, as beings with moral standing). And very significantly, they will never exist in the future (this is even stronger than what we face when we talk about potential future people). So really, to say that we do anything to them seems shaky at best.

So, then, if we can't do anything to the deceased, can we really say that they have rights? In his essay, Original Rights and Just Redistribution, Hillel Steiner argues that the answer is no. He writes, "...although we undoubtedly do have serious moral duties with regard to dead and future persons, these are not correlative ones. Dead and future persons have no rights." By "correlative," He elaborates, saying, " arguing against the notion of a right to bequeath, I don't commit myself to the view that there cannot be utilitarian or interest-based accounts of the practice of bequest. There clearly can be. And insofar as there are, these will go some way to justifying enfranchisement of the dead."

What Steiner has in mind is that we might not respect duties regarding the dead because of rights held by the deceased individuals themselves, but rather because of some other kind of consideration to which we attribute moral significance. For example, a "utilitarian" reason of the sort Steiner is talking about would be the fact that people might be more productive and lead better lives if they believe that after they die, their wishes will be honored. If this were true (and I think it's quite obvious that it is), then it seems like we would have a good reason to think that we are morally obliged to respect the wishes of dead individuals, that reason being that we want our own wishes to be respected after we die.

This kind of reasoning is seemingly dependent on the notion of a veil of ignorance approach to morality (or some essentially similar substitute). In his essay, "Does Reason Tell Us What Moral Code to Follow and, Indeed, to Follow Any Moral Code at All?," John Harsanyi explained this way of choosing between moral codes: "...Taking an impartial point of view, that is, disregarding what your own social position would be in either society, would you prefer to live in a society governed by the first moral code or in a society governed by the second?" And this seems like what some people have in mind when we say that we should respect the wishes of the dead. We would prefer to live in a society governed by a moral code such that the wishes of the dead were respected, because such a society would likely be a much better place to live.

The thing to think about, though, is whether or not it would be unjust to ignore the interests of the dead. That is, whether we would be justified in using coercion against someone who was going to do it. If so, then that seems like it would be very important for my discussion of climate change; it might lead us to a way of denying that climate change infringes on any rights while simultaneously supporting the permissibility of coercion to prevent people from contributing to it. But I'll pause for now and get back to this later.

1 comment:

TS said...


Well, to me, the fact that wills are most of the time respected proves that peoples' rights are still valid after they died, so dead people still have rights. Right?

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