, Volume 3, Issue 1, pp 25-59

The nature and basis of inalienable rights

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Abstract

This paper has two purposes. One is primarily (but not exclusively) conceptual and the other is normative. The first aim is to say what inalienable rights are. To explain this, inalienable rights are contrasted with the notions of forfeitable rights and absolute rights. A recent novel analysis of inalienable rights by Feinberg is explained and criticized. The first task is concluded by discussing what duties inalienable rights imply. The second aim is to see what moral principles, if any, justify designating some rights as inalienable. The claim of Nozick and others that inalienable rights must be paternalistically grounded is examined and rejected. After a brief critical discussion of the Lockean and Hobbesean accounts of the basis of inalienable rights, it is argued that the harm principle can serve as an adequate ground for categorizing at least the right to life (and perhaps other rights) as inalienable.

An earlier version of this paper was read at Guilford College, Tulane University, and Wake Forest University. I have benefited from the suggestions and comments of members of those audiences and from Stephen Darwall, Thomas Hill, Jr., Edward Langerak, Ruth Lucier, James Smith, Lance Stell, Laurence Thomas, and Donald Van DeVeer.