We decide about inalienable rights.
This post presents a philosophical idea inspired by the text of today’s Daf. The Daf is one page in the Talmud that tens of thousands of people study each day. I explain the connection to the text in a comment below. My purpose is to show that there are underlying philosophical assumptions in the Talmud that can have great significance for anybody today trying to understand our complex reality.
The title of this post may seem self-contradictory, for how can you decide about an inalienable right if it cannot be given away. Inalienable is defined as “unable to be taken away or given away by the possessor”. Therefore, it is an inherent right that cannot be relinquished or transferred to another. (https://languages.oup.com/google-dictionary-en/)
This post will argue that the concept of “inalienable” in this context means that no commitment, promise, contract, or law enacted by others can force you to relinquish your right.
Who decided the rule that no other rules may take away your inalienable rights? Who decides exactly which rights are inalienable? I propose that this rule is a core informal constitutional rule and that it is decided by you. This claim is controversial and needs to be justified.
This informal core constitutional rule itself has the power to cede any right but at the same time mandates that any additional rules cannot abridge inalienable rights. Ultimately, the decision to accept this core rule or any other rules lies with you.
John Locke, the famous 17th c. philosopher, asserted that there are absolute, inalienable rights which are not contingent upon any human decision-makers. However, what evidence is there to support the existence of such absolutes?
For example, the right to your own body is assumed to be an inalienable right that cannot be relinquished. You may choose to enter into a contract that commits you to provide a service or donate your time, but on the other hand, a contract that gives another person rights to your body would be considered invalid.
But what does that mean? If I, for example, sign a job contract to dig ditches all day, will my body not be affected by this obligation? Moreover, if a job is emotionally draining, are my emotions not a part of my body? The distinction between mind and body appears to be an arbitrary concept established by society. If this is true, how can the right to my own body be regarded as an absolute unalterable truth?
Some may argue that G_d is the source of the basic rules upon which society is based. This raises three important questions. (i) Why should people who do not believe in G_d comply with such a system? (ii) Even those who do believe in G_d often disagree on what His rules are. (iii) Ultimately, isn’t it up to each individual to decide whether to abide by G_d’s rules or not? Any way you look at it is still your decision.
Some people assume that Science can determine which rights are absolute, but this is an oversimplification. In reality, no scientist has ever been able to measure an inalienable right. When scientists attempt to answer this kind of question, they are going beyond the scope of their field. At best, we can predict which rules people may agree to, but not which rules we should follow.
Assuming we have established our own set of rules, which one is fundamental to the entire system? The answer is simple: keep your word. Even if you agree to abide by the rules of your society, there still needs to be an unwritten rule that you will stand by your promises. There is no social contract that can bind you, not at birth and not at any time after. Rather, it is a game where everyone needs to play by the same set of rules, and in order for them to trust you, they must believe that you have your own code of honor, which is to keep your word.
Those who believe in a social contract theory assume that by continuing to enjoy the benefits of society, you in effect, sign the social contract. However, this begs the question: who says that by signing, you are bound to your word? This concept of commitment to promises must come from within oneself and cannot be part of the contract itself.
At the heart of any social interaction lies the notion of one’s word; a promise. This informal personal constitution is a commitment to abide by society’s rules. This willingness to participate also establishes the basis upon which the group can create the rest of its rules. However, there is a condition: not all rules or actions taken by the group are permissible. Inalienable rights are the boundaries that no further rules must transgress, and their exact definition may vary from place to place and across time.
If you accept that the same constitutional rule should apply for everybody, then everyone has these rights. But this is an ideal. In the real world, there are cheats, who are happy for everybody else to abide by the rules but they themselves have no intention to abide by these rules. There is also the fear of oppression – that once you agree to participate and give the power to others, they will ignore your conditions.
At the core of society is the individual commitment and a personal decision to abide by it. That individual commitment is conditional upon some basic demands, one of which is respecting the inalienable rights of all individuals in the society.