Directed Duties and Inalienable Rights: A Brief Summary – Article by Daniel Yeluashvili

Directed Duties and Inalienable Rights: A Brief Summary – Article by Daniel Yeluashvili

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Daniel Yeluashvili


Editor’s Note: This guest article by Daniel Yeluashvili is being published in order to further discussion on the nature of rights and how rights might look in the future. It does not, however, represent any official position of the U.S. Transhumanist Party. We recognize that different members of the U.S. Transhumanist Party may approach the subject of rights, and whether inalienable rights exist, from a wide variety of philosophical frameworks and backgrounds. 

~ Gennady Stolyarov II, Chairman, United States Transhumanist Party, September 14, 2017


“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These words were written by our Founding Fathers in 1776, on a document that, despite having no binding legal powers of its own, has not only served as a touchstone of hundreds of legal cases in America but inspired subsequent Documents of Freedom to be written, namely, the Constitution and appended Bill of Rights. However, contemporary political philosopher Hillel Steiner has upended the foundation of America’s moral codex in his essay “Directed Duties and Inalienable Rights” by positing, nimbly but firmly, that inalienable rights do not and cannot exist. Therefore, no aspect of American laws or rights comes from a God of any kind, in direct contradiction to much of the fundamentalist rhetoric heard throughout America today. Steiner proves this point in three ways: first, by deriving his conclusion from the presupposition of the cogency of the Will Theory of rights, second, by doing the same from the Interest Theory, and third, casually proving that he never needed to work with either theory in the first place and constructing an independent argument he calls the Moral Primacy Thesis. This thesis is derived from the work of Wesley Hohfeld, a prominent legal theorist who used a form of logic designed for ethical concepts to prove that nobody has an inherent “right,” in the conventional sense, to anything.

Steiner begins his argument with the Will Theory, a legal theory of moral rights supported by philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Carl von Savigny, and Steiner himself. The Will Theory, given its emphasis on granting rights through the power of personal choice, grants the power to demand and force someone to perform an action or, alternatively, willingly give up the right to make that demand in the first place. Per the Will Theory, nobody’s rights can forcibly be taken away, but they can be voided through one’s own inaction or inability to make a choice. By its very definition, inalienable rights within the framework of the Will Theory cannot exist.

By contrast, the Interest Theory takes a different approach. Championed by the likes of notable philosopher Jeremy Bentham, the Interest Theory suggests that rights exist solely to protect one’s personal interests rather than to exert liberty or choice of any kind. While such rights can’t be given up as easily as within the framework of the Will Theory, Steiner makes the case that, per the second page of the attached essay, “a necessary and sufficient condition of being a rights-holder is that those interests would be adversely affected by the breach of a duty.” A duty, in this context, refers to whichever demand one make make of someone else. If you demand of someone, for example, that they not look at your browser history to protect the interest of hiding your mind-uploading memes from the world and they do it anyway, this would be a breach of a duty on their behalf. This is no better than the Will Theory: instead of personally rescinding one’s rights through incompetence, now they can be taken away by others. Once again, no rights within this framework would be genuinely inalienable.

After so clearly formulating two arguments against the existence of inalienable rights, Steiner throws them out the window by constructing a new one entirely: the Moral Primacy Thesis. This thesis is based on Hohfeldian deontic logic, a system of logic designed for ethical concepts which, ipso facto, does not universally guarantee a right without the possibility of said right being taken away. The four most basic types of rights that Hohfeld defines are powers, immunities, privileges, and claims. Privileges give access to something without guaranteeing the safety and stability of said privilege, meaning that they are ephemeral and may be taken away at any time. A more stable version of privileges would be claims, which restrict others from gaining the same access that is guaranteed by one’s privileges. Claims can be countered in two ways, by oneself or others, one in the short term and one in the long term. The short-term counter to a claim is a power, which waives, annuls, or transfers said claim. The long-term counter to a claim, which prevents it from being modified in the future, is an immunity. Even by this logic, no rights are inherently inalienable. If they were, such a legal concept would be politically omnipotent and illogical. Thus, no aspect of America’s ostensibly “God-given rights” has any bearing on political philosophy or moral theory.

Daniel Yeluashvili is a student at San Francisco State University and a member of the U.S. Transhumanist Party.

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