Bell IV: The Dead Have Rights Too
At the end of the first part of the Bell’s book East Meets West, there’s a quick discussion of the “rights of the dead.” Perhaps it is the case, as Lo suggests to Demo, that dead people have rights as much as living people do. Most of the people here know that I have a thing for zombie movies – so I already have a pretty healthy respect for the dead (or the undead, as it were). Still, even for me it seems to be an odd idea to suggest that the dead have rights. It caused me to stop and think for a second: what the heck is a human right, after all?
I’m a pretty liberal guy (however you want to read that). When I hear that this or that person was horribly mistreated, my hackles go up. “That’s a violation of so-and-so’s rights!” I think. “Lo” wants to extend our intuitions about mistreatment to cases involving the dead. As a specific example, Lo notes the (true case of) people trying to build a supermarket too close to the grounds of a concentration camp, but it’s clear that Lo wants to extend this notion generally to “treating the dead with respect” – a respect that, of course, would be culturally made significant through local rituals focused on death. So, for the ancient Greeks, rituals suggest that it would disrespect the dead not to bury them (think of Antigone). For the Calatians, ritual suggest eating the dead after they pass away. For Confucius, ritual (li) would demand that one “follow in the ways of one’s parents” for at least three years after they die. In each case, presumably, the dead have “a right to” this treatment.
Now, most of the time, my hackles about rights-oriented-mistreatment are connected up to my pre-philosophical intuitions about human nature. I know this because when I stop and think: “What assures that so-and-so has a right to anything?” I’m often not entirely sure what the answer is. Mostly, my intuitions are just a collection of vague notions that something intrinsic to what makes a person human has been violated in some particular instance. But what is it that secures a right to whatever – what is that “something” that makes a human being human? Typically people say things like “rationality (potential or actual)” or “a capacity for having complex plans and projects” or “having free will” or “possessing a conscience” or things of this general sort. In each case, the person is suggesting that rights are linked to a recognition of whatever it is about humans that reflects their “intrinsic dignity” as agents.
But if human rights are grounded in these sorts of things (whichever of them), then extending them to dead people seems odd because, well, they are dead. As a consequence, they don’t possess those properties anymore. Dead people aren’t rational (whether in a potential or actual sense), have no plans and projects, aren’t free and don’t have a conscience (even zombies don’t have these things).
As a result, extending rights to the dead means shifting our notion of what makes human beings human to something different. It will have to be something that the dead had while alive, and something that they retain now that they are dead, so that the right to a certain degree of respect that remain warranted after demise.
Any thoughts on what this might be? My guess is that we would need to move in a Confucian direction here, but I’m curious if anyone has a guess or speculation to throw out, or even any criticism about the notion of extending rights to the dead.