Inalienable Rights

I’ve misunderstood the word inalienable for many years. Anton Sherwood writes:

Meyer ironically misunderstands the word inalienable. It does not mean that such rights cannot be lost; it means they cannot be transferred to another (Latin aliênum `of another’).

If I sell you the rights to some of my chattels, you can thereafter enjoy those rights exactly as I did and add them to whatever other property rights you hold; I have then alienated those rights in your favor.

But if you take away my right to life or liberty, or my general right to acquire and hold property (as distinct from my rights in any one piece of property), you do not thereby acquire more such rights than you already have. You cannot enjoy a right to my life in the same way I do, and thus that right is inalienable. A murderer denies the right to life but does not transfer it.

The historic relevance of this distinction, between those rights that can be alienated and those that cannot, has to do with the functioning of the State. It may be argued that by transferring certain property rights from me to itself (by taxation or eminent domain) the State makes more effective use of that property; but this argument applies only to that which is alienable by its nature. Such an argument cannot justify abridgement of an inalienable right.

I thought “inalienable rights” had to be tautological or hokum.

My knowledge of my ignorance increases every day. Or, as Lucas Gonze wrote yesterday:

When I read arguments based on not knowing the turf all that well, I want to recant — louder! — my checkered past as a pundit, and all the stupid shit I got away with because nobody took the trouble to correct me in public.

2 Responses

  1. george Meier says:

    I believe there is an unalienable right. This a right that cannot be lost. It is that we were made in the image of God. This has three parts. Eternal spiritual life, knowledge of good and rvil and freedom of choice.

  2. […] Inalienable Rights. I thought that I had misunderstood these as impossible-to-remove instead of impossible-to-transfer, but I should not have readily accepted the latter. There seems little agreement over what inalienable rights means, and even if it did refer to impossible-to-transfer, it is not clear why 1:1 transfer is of universal interest (e.g., a murderer doesn’t get to enjoy living their victim’s life directly, but may obtain many other related things) nor why some such things should be described with the politically loaded term “rights” and other such things not: both non-comparability and substitutability and related are rampant; categories such as “inalienable rights” are mere posturing. Ironically for this refutation series, the post claims joy in recantation. But really, it is a pain; loose talk wins assuming a realistically high discount rate. […]

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