WHAT THE RIGHT TO PERSONHOOD DOES
AND DOES NOT ENTAIL
A person is the whole of
'er body with 'er own mental attributes
and relations in addition to the physical characteristics of that body.
One such mental relationship is that with a particular normative doctrine
ideology, with a particular system of morals
or norms, or rather doxastic 'norms'.
It is this morality which determines for the person concerned whether
'e should or should not act in a
certain way, or whether 'e does or does not have the right to act in that
way. Yet, these duties and rights are of an
Even when we have comments about what the being concerned should or
should not do, has a right to or has no right to do, we base our judgment
in the first instance on our own
(first-order) doctrinal principles.
When people say what another being should do or be on the basis of
their normative beliefs, and not on the basis of that other being's
own morality (if it has one), and when they try to force their views on it,
they, clearly, do not treat it as a person.
For every being, animal or human being could be said to have to do or to
be something on the basis of the speaker's own creed.
Only by granting another being the right to do or to be something in
accordance with the instructions of its own morality is that
other being recognized as a person instead of a mere body or set
of bodies (if it is a group of which all members agree with one
another). It is this insight that persons, who have or can have
their own normative principles, ideas and theories, should
be respected equally as persons, which has a
metadoctrinal foundation. The discretionary,
fundamental right of every person to do or not to do something in agreement
with 'er personal opinions, we shall henceforth call "the right to
The primordial right to personhood generates a whole
extrinsic, the fundamental,
extrinsic right-duty constellation.
It is not a human right, because it is a right a being has
as a person, and persons need not be human beings, nor are all
beings which are biologically speaking 'human', necessarily
persons. It could be called "a natural right", but it should
not. Firstly, the propositions and presuppositions of certain
honored natural rights advocates (of later times) are too
dubious to spontaneously associate ourselves with.
Secondly, the word natural itself is --as
already pointed out in
7.3.2-- one of the
key terms of philosophical, ideological and everyday opportunism, and its
confusion of the factual and the normative and other distinctions has but
too often suited the affected speakers and thinkers too well.
Thirdly, the right to personhood is not a 'natural' but a cultural right;
'cultural' in that it concerns the development and use of an individual's
or group's intellectual and moral faculties, and in that it concerns their
status as persons, not as natural bodies.
It is intrinsic rights which may be either cultural or 'natural' in this
As the right of a first party in an extrinsic general
right-duty constellation, the right to personhood is not only
discretionary or exercisable but also an active right 'against
the world at large'. It creates and correlates with the general
nonactivating duty of all other individuals or groups not
to interfere. Formally speaking, there is an unconditional
reciprocity in an extrinsic system, and therefore the other
individuals or groups have reciprocally the same right as
the first party. Since the content of the right is now
personhood itself, individuals or groups can solely have it as
persons. Hence, with this specific content of the extrinsic
constellation, the coexistent party is entirely a party of
people, and of all other people.
The right to personhood is fundamental in that it is not
derived from any other right.
(One may say
tho, that it derives from
the normative, metadoctrinal principle regulating the relationship between
a person and the doctrine in agreement with which 'e does or does not act.)
But, like from every fundamental right, a number of more specific rights
may be derived in turn.
Such rights which are subordinate to the universal right to
personhood we shall call "rights of personhood".
(Likewise, 'rights of life' are instances of the superordinate
'right to life', and 'rights of conscience' instances of the
superordinate 'right to conscience'.
In the right of property, however, only of can be used, if
'property' is defined as a right itself and not as an object to which one
has the right.)
It is now quite obvious that a number of alleged rights we
have discussed, and which could be classified as general and
extrinsic (at least partially), are nothing else than rights of
personhood. The 'right to life' is a right of personhood if it
is general and extrinsic (and therefore discretionary), and if
life is interpreted as personal life and contrasted with
personal death. The 'right to liberty' is a right of personhood
provided that the liberty claimed does not require someone
else's activation. And there are so many other, specific rights
of personhood we have encountered before: the right to the
pursuit of happiness, to freedom of thought and conscience, of
opinion and expression, of peaceful assembly and association,
and of movement and residence. As has been stressed before, this
does not mean that any particular allegation of a right to life,
or to freedom of something, must be the assertion of a right of
personhood. It may only be possible to construe it that way.
From a metadoctrinal perspective, the claim that there is a
fundamental, human, or moral, or natural, right to life in
isolation could be called "nonsense upon stilts" (and as a
matter of fact, also from a doctrinal perspective). Fundamental
is only the personal, extrinsic right to personhood. It is
from this right that the discretionary right to (personal) life
and death derives, namely the right to live and to die. It is
not until this right is analyzed that we arrive at the
subordinate extrinsic right to life, that is, to a person's
life, itself. But then, it is immediately joined by the right to
death, that is, the right of a person to prefer (the risk of)
'er own death to 'er own life. To decide about one's own life
and death, about the continuation or possible cessation of one's
own personhood, is the ultimate and most dramatic form of
exercising one's right to personhood. This may be the reason why
so many have believed that the right to life was itself a
fundamental right not expressive of their own, personal, creed.
Since the right to personhood is a discretionary right, there
is a twin-right for every right of personhood of the same level
(or else this right can be made so specific that it does have a
twin). Just as the right to die is the twin-right of the right
to live (on), so the right to be 'immoral' (in terms of a
particular doctrine), if and insofar as this does not interfere
with others, is the twin-right of the right to be 'moral'; the
right to discriminate, if and insofar as this does not interfere
with others, the twin-right of the right not to discriminate;
the right to be punished, the twin-right of the right not to be
punished, if and insofar as the punishment does not pertain to
one's interference with someone else; and so on and so forth.
This is what makes the right active and discretionary, and this
is what personhood entails: a body may do things and leave
things in accordance with the judgment of the person having this body
'imself. Yet, we must not forget that
since the right is general and discretionary, it does not exist in the
strictly ontological sense of existence. It is rather the
correlative duty not to interfere with other people which is assumed to
correspond to an existing norm.
Now, this brief exposition of the extrinsic right-duty
constellation fleshed up with a genuine, but perhaps immoral,
content may excite some people and shock others, or may
both excite and shock them. When we ourselves do recognize
and agree with the 'existence' of rights of personhood, it is
because personhood is prerequisite for the evolution of normative
thought, or of morality. Including ourselves, every person
is fallible, and also in this respect we are all equal. On the
other hand, when we feel that the view of personhood as outlined
is nihilistic in that it does not encompass any social and
economic morality, even no civil and political rights and duties
in the strict sense, it is because we do already have certain
doctrinal normative principles to base this judgment upon. It is
on the basis of these principles that no-one has the right to
discriminate, even when not interfering with anyone; that no-one
has the right to be immoral, even when not interfering with
anyone. We may all possess the greatest possible freedom to do
or not to do what we want, yet such nonactivating freedom is a
mere prerequisite for being able to attain what we should strive
for. When the personal liberty inherent in the extrinsic
right-duty constellation is contrasted with, and put above,
murder, torture, assault, intimidation and violation of free
speech, we have all reason to be excited by it; when it is
contrasted with, and isolated from, solidarity, equality,
nondiscrimination, minimization of suffering and a general duty of
beneficence, we have all reason to be shocked by it or to feel
The introduction of a right to personhood places a clear-cut emphasis on
every person's autonomy and integrity.
True, some theorists may not be too fond of this emphasis and object that
we thus isolate the individual from society or the community in which 'e
lives and of which 'e is an integral part.
(Particularly those who claim that 'man' is rational, moral and free only
as a member of society or as a subject of the state may not be interested
in the autonomy of individual persons by any manner of means.)
This objection is unfounded, however, for in no way is it proposed or
presupposed here that the individual's choice of morality or normative
doctrine is, can or should be different from those of 'er fellows, or of
all 'er fellows -- on the contrary.
In a society or community in which everyone agrees, and in which there is a
complete harmony between private and public ends (and this in itself is an
asset) no individual will have to appeal to the right to personhood in
Yet, this does not mean that individuals would not continue to have this
They do continue to have this right, and it is essential that even real
unanimity and equality do not extinguish it --
just in case that.