ALIENATING OR OVERRIDING A RIGHT OF PERSONHOOD
What are the ways of losing or weakening the
right to personhood or any
right of personhood? Not much imagination is
needed to realize that it can be violated and depreciated. But
can it be relinquished, forfeited, abrogated or overridden? And
if so, only temporarily or also permanently; and only partially
or also completely? These are all questions we can in this
context of developing an instrumental and preliminary framework
for our thought only try to answer conceptually and provisionally.
If we conclude, for example, that the right to personhood or a right of
personhood can be lost or weakened in a certain way, conceptually
speaking, this does not yet mean that we maintain that it is or will be
lost or weakened in that way.
(Similarly, the possibility of the conceptualization of a supreme being
with particular attributes and component parts which one being can have
in combination and consistently does not yet prove the existence of
such a supreme being.)
To start with, the right to personhood can never be abrogated,
whether temporarily or permanently, whether partially
or completely. Suspension, annulment, abridgment and complete
abrogation are formal performances which are part of the
procedures of a legal or similar, social institution. Personhood
and the right to personhood exist prior to, and independent of,
any such institution. Moreover, the possibility of abrogating
one person's right to personhood by another person would make a
mockery of this right as such an abrogation is a kind of
Within the bounds of an
extrinsic right-duty constellation it is this
very interference which is disallowed.
There is another consideration: if A were allowed
to abrogate B's right to personhood (and for this performance
there are no legal or social rules), then B would be equally
allowed to abrogate A's right to personhood. The 'safest'
thing would be, then, to be first and abrogate everyone else's
right to personhood completely and forever, which is just
a ridiculous corollary.
To determine who could abrogate whose right to personhood would require
a system of rules founded on (first-order)
doctrinal principles governing at least two
Within an extrinsic right-duty constellation such a system of
rules is conceptually impossible.
By adopting it, the right-duty constellation would become
intrinsic, and we would merely be talking
about another right (a legal right, for instance), not about the right
to personhood or any right of personhood.
Also to 'alienate one's right to personhood', in the sense of
relinquishing it, is a conceptual absurdity. Relinquishment
presupposes personhood too, and if people have a right to
personhood as people, then all people have it, even those who
would like to be able to relinquish it.
Of course, someone may choose to die, or to risk or sacrifice 'er life,
and thus become a person without a living body by which to keep on
communicating —a nonperson physically—, but then 'e does
exercise 'er right to personhood, not relinquish it.
It is not a body which first possesses the right to personhood, and
later not anymore; it is the person who used to have this body while
alive who continues to possess the right so long as 'e did, does or
will exist as a person.
Whereas the total right to personhood cannot be relinquished,
it is fully comprehensible that someone could relinquish a
particular right of personhood, or waive exercise of such a
right, because 'e would still keep the total right itself and
remain a person. Forced, rather than voluntary, relinquishment
is not possible since that amounts to a form of interference,
but it may even not be possible to waive the right itself
voluntarily. Waiving exercise of a right of personhood is
certainly possible as every such right is discretionary, but so
is waiving exercise of the right to personhood itself. This must
then also be possible, conceptually speaking. For waiving
exercise of the right means that the waiver is revocable at any
moment, and this very possibility presupposes continued
personhood as well.
As regards the other type of 'alienation', forfeiture, the
forfeiture of the entire right to personhood cannot be conceived of
either for generally the same reasons.
But again, one can conceive of the forfeiture of a particular right of
personhood, now in consequence of the agent's wrongdoing in terms of
the extrinsic right-duty constellation itself.
It must, therefore, be an interference with someone else's right to
No other kind of wrongdoing can lead to the forfeiture of a right of
personhood. (Furthermore there are good reasons to maintain that
a right to free speech can only, but need not, be forfeited if
someone interferes with another's right to free speech; that a
right to life can only, but need not, be forfeited if someone
murders someone else; and so on.)
The question of what the rules of forfeiture are or could be exactly
is not a conceptual issue anymore so long as only
extrinsic wrongdoing is taken into
It also remains to be seen whether the forfeiture of a right of
personhood can ever be permanent.
If a right of personhood has been alienated, or if the exercise of
such a right has been waived, there is still no reason from a
metadoctrinal point of view to
do that which would have been interference if the person in question
continued to have this right, or had not waived exercise of it.
For example, if someone has forfeited
'er right to freedom of movement
(assuming that this would really be possible), it does not mean yet that
everybody ought to prevent this person from moving about freely (let
alone that everybody ought to kill this person if
'e had forfeited 'er right to life).
Even an activation in the absence of
an active right and nonactivating duty requires a doctrinal
principle which underlies an intrinsic, activating duty. The
alienation of a right, or the waiver of its exercise, is by
itself no reason whatsoever to do something; it is only the
absence of a reason not to do something.
There are two ways in which a specific right of personhood
could be overridden in a particular situation: firstly, it
could be overruled by another, extrinsic right of personhood of
(probably two or more) other people; and secondly, by an
This latter possibility exists conceptually too, for both the right of
personhood and the intrinsic duty under consideration (or the respective
claims involved) are a prima facie right and duty (or claims).
It may be that in an actual situation not both the extrinsic right and
the intrinsic duty can be actualized, and that a person temporarily loses
an actual right (not the prima facie right) because of underweight
of the right in the particular situation. This underweight of
the right must plainly be distinguished from the belief in the
underweight of the right.
People may have conflicting opinions about the question whether a
particular right is overridden in a particular situation or not.
They will certainly not believe that it can be overridden by an
intrinsic right-duty constellation they do not recognize.
And they always have the extrinsic right to believe this and to act
accordingly (if, and so long as, they do not interfere with others).
(Note the difference with abrogation: there the doctrinal deliberation
would have had to precede and determine the abrogation; here the
overriding occurs independently of, and possibly prior to, any
Ideally speaking, a right of personhood ought never to be
overruled, or only because of other people's equal right of
personhood. An ideal normative doctrine counts every right
in as (also) an intrinsic, active right justifiable on the
basis of its own doctrinal principles.
Paradoxically, from a metadoctrinal perspective, an ideal normative
doctrine does not even need the separate recognition of rights of
In spite of this, even the adherents of such an ideal doctrine may have
to live and coexist with the adherents of less enlightened, political
It is under such (potentially) illiberal circumstances that they may
have to appeal to the universal right to personhood when standing up
for their own and other people's specific rights.