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The Declaration of Independence reads in part, "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."

Yet Objectivism holds that rights are contextual; that they may be violated when circumstances reasonably call for it, such as the death penalty for heinous crimes.

Reference to a "Creator" aside, is the statement in the Declaration of Independence then false by Objectivist standards?

asked Feb 07 '12 at 18:18

JK%20Gregg's gravatar image

JK Gregg ♦

edited Feb 08 '12 at 10:37

Andrew%20Dalton's gravatar image

Andrew Dalton ♦


I'm not sure you've got that quite right. Not the death penalty nor any other legitimate government force violates rights in the first place. The reason is precisely that they are contextual, that is, in such and such context, you do not HAVE such and such right in the first place (therefore it cannot be "alienated" by others either). For instance when you've relinquished it by committing a crime.

The whole question is in which contexts you HAVE rights in the first place (when you're acting within a civilized society, or to establish one).

(Feb 07 '12 at 18:32) FCH FCH's gravatar image

I believe I understand you.

I think what is throwing me off are the terms "unalienable" and "contextual." It appears at first glace they are mutually exclusive qualifiers, but in reality "unalienable rights" themselves are contextual and the purpose of qualifying rights as "unalienable" is to say rights within a civilized social context cannot be alienated. Whereas rights, when such social context is violated, can be alienated.

(Feb 07 '12 at 18:42) JK Gregg ♦ JK%20Gregg's gravatar image

Perhaps it'll help to differentiate "inalienable" from "intrinsic". These rights cannot be alienated, but they are the result of a specific context, rather than the fact that one is a homo sapiens. I don't know if you've seen it, but this actually adresses just your question: http://blog.seculargovernment.us/2012/02/rights-are-inalienable-but-forfeitable.html

(Feb 07 '12 at 19:55) FCH FCH's gravatar image

Good! Yes. I was going to answer this question, but both of you have nailed it.

(Feb 08 '12 at 06:44) John Paquette ♦ John%20Paquette's gravatar image
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Objectivism holds that rights are contextual absolutes. What this means is that rights arise in a particular context and apply absolutely within that context. The principle of rights arises to define and protect the individual's freedom of action in society, and that is the context in which it applies. Punishing those who have violated the rights of others is not itself a rights violation. It is a defense and vindication of rights -- the rights of those victimized by the criminal.

One could say that the criminal has 'alienated' his rights by choosing to victimize others, but it would be more accurate to say that through his actions he has placed himself outside the context in which his rights apply. The criminal has the same rights as everyone else -- which do not include the right to violate the rights of others.

The part of that passage in the Declaration that Objectivism views as definitely incorrect comes slightly earlier: Jefferson to the contrary notwithstanding, the principle of individual rights is not self-evident.

answered Feb 08 '12 at 14:19

Kyle%20Haight's gravatar image

Kyle Haight ♦

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Asked: Feb 07 '12 at 18:18

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Last updated: Feb 08 '12 at 14:19