The basic right

The basic right is a fundamental part in ethics. It is the right not to be used as merely means for someone else’s ends. This right is related to the notion of intrinsic value, which is to be distinguished from instrumental value (use value). We give something intrinsic value when that thing is important (valuable) beyond its use value. The basic right also resembles a version of the Kantian categorical imperative: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” (Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals) According to Kant, humans have dignity. But as we are going to discuss, there is no reason why only humans should have dignity and a basic right.

Although empathy is a very valuable moral emotion, the basic right does not follow from a feeling of empathy. Rather, it stems from a feeling of respect. Treating someone as merely means is not respectful. The basic right strongly trumps considerations to increase well-being (it overrules a consequentialist ethics to a strong degree).

The principle of the basic right is a universalized ethical principle that is an explicit formulation of moral intuitions that we have in moral dilemmas such as the trolley dilemma. Suppose a trolley is moving towards five people on the track. You can stop the trolley and save those five innocent people by pushing a fat man from a bridge. This fat man will stop the trolley, he will die but five people will be saved. Yet, your action is not allowed because the fat man is used as merely means (as a trolley blocker). This dilemma is to be distinguished from another trolley situation: five people on the main track will die, unless you turn a switch to deflect the trolley on a side track, where it will kill one person. This action is allowed, because this person on the side track is not used as a means, you don’t need him in order to save the five on the main track.

There are thousands of other moral dilemmas and situations where our intuitive judgment corresponds with the basic right principle. We are not allowed to sacrifice an innocent person against his will in order to use his organs to save five patients in the hospital who need new organs in order to live. Neither are involuntary experiments, terror bombing, rape, slavery, trafficking, cannibalism… allowed. All these examples are immoral, and all these intuitive judgments can be translated into violations of the basic right. In all these situations, people are used as merely means. Our intuitions are coherent (they mutually support each other) and this gives credibility to our corresponding universalized ethical principle.

Looking at the formulation of the basic right – use someone as merely means for someone else’s ends – we have to answer three questions: 1) What do we mean by use as “merely means”? 2) What do we mean with “ends”? 3) Who is the “someone”? I.e. who gets the basic right?

The first question will be answered in the next section. Questions 2 and 3 are related and will be dealt with in the subsequent section.

a)    When is the basic right violated?

When do we use someone as merely means? Slavery, human trafficking, rape, cannibalism, involuntary organ donations, involuntary human experiments and pushing a fat man from the bridge in order to stop a trolley are all examples of basic right violations of humans. What have these things in common? And how to distinguish these examples from actions that do not violate the basic right? E.g. using a baker to get some bread, using an employee, sending your children to school against their will, imprisoning a criminal, killing a person on a side track in order to save five people on the main track,… These actions are not immoral, and therefore should not be classified as basic right violations.

We will discuss three conditions. Only when all three conditions are met, can we speak about a basic right violation.

Condition 1: The presence of the victim is required

The victim has to be present in order for the plan to succeed (in order to reach an end). If the fat man on the bridge was not present, the plan to block the trolley by pushing him in front of it would not work. So the presence of the fat man is required. In the switch dilemma however, if the person on the side track was not present, one could still turn the switch and save the five on the main track. Imprisoning a murderer is a violation of his liberty, but it does not violate his basic right, because the presence of the criminal was not necessary in order to reach the end (a save society). On the contrary, his absence was preferred. But using this murderer for forced labor might violate his basic right.

What about going to the baker? He needs to be present, otherwise there is no bread for us. Aren’t we using the baker as a kind of machine to make bread for us?

Condition 2: The agent interferes and causes harm to the victim

A perhaps trivial condition is that the agent interferes in the life of the victim, by e.g. harming him, killing him or restricting his liberty. Going to the baker does not harm him or restrict his liberty, because the baker voluntarily decided to make some bread. One could reply that if the baker was very poor and didn’t saw any means to survive except to bake bread against his will, then his liberty was restricted. However, the agent (the buyer of the bread) did not cause the poverty of the baker. The economic system caused his poverty. If the buyer was not there, the baker would still be poor. So the buyer doesn’t use the baker as a slave.

The presence of the agent is therefore also a necessary condition. If the agent holds a gun against the head of the baker and threatens him to make some bread, he causes the restriction in liberty, and violates the basic right. If the buyer doesn’t pay enough money for the bread, he does not necessarily violate the basic right of the baker, but he definitely violates a principle of justice (that says we have to maximize the well-being of the worst-off individuals). So, bad labor conditions in a free market system do not imply violations of the basic right, but can be strong violations of the justice principle. That’s why those poor working conditions (in a lot of capitalist societies) are immoral. Employees in a free labor market system are exploited, but their basic rights are not violated, because they are not treated as slaves.

Condition 3: The victim is harmed by treating him as property, violating his bodily integrity or restricting his liberty

In slavery and trafficking, victims are treated as property in the legal or economic sense. They are merchandise. This property status is not respectful, even if the victims are not aware of their treatment as property (e.g. selling babies). According to animal rights activist Gary Francione, we should also abolish the property status of animals. So we should not be allowed to buy and sell animals (e.g. buying a pet from a breeder), even if those animals (like babies or mentally disabled humans) cannot be aware of their property status.

Abolishing the property status of animals would already stop a lot of basic rights violations. But not all basic rights violations are related to a treatment as property. Pushing a fat man from a bridge doesn’t mean he has been used as property in the legal sense. As with rape, involuntary experiments and organ donations, someone’s bodily integrity is violated.


The above three conditions give us a fairly precise, clear and nuanced picture when a basic right is violated. If the agent causes harm to a victim by treating him as property or by violating his bodily integrity, and if the presence of this victim was required in order to reach an end, then the victim is used as merely means for someone else’s ends.

In the next section we will argue who gets the basic right. There are a lot of beings, each with different levels of complexity and interests. So giving them all an equal claim for this basic right will be difficult. There is a gradation in complexity and interests, and there is also a gradation in someone’s ends. Could it be possible to make a coherent picture by coupling those two gradations? We will see that the question “Who gets the basic right?” and the question “What are the ends?” are related with each other.

b)    Who gets the basic right?

In this section we try to answer the question who we need to take into account? Who or what gets the basic right? We have seen that this basic right principle is not merely based on empathy, but also on respect. So who or what earns respect? My guess is that respect is connected to something complex and vulnerable. There are different complex and vulnerable things in the universe, such as living beings, sentient beings,…  These beings are characterized by having complex interests. A car or a stone does not have complex interests, because it does not even do anything to protect its interests. It can have an interest not to be broken, but that is a trivial interest.

We might say that complexity in interests is related to respect. And as we have seen, respect means that we should not violate someone’s basic right. Now, rights are nothing but devices to protect interests. So it is not farfetched to couple the notion of interests with the basic right. How can we do this in a natural way?

First, we observe that there is a gradation of interests (needs), a gradation of complexity. Roughly speaking we have non-living objects with only trivial interests and low complexity. Living beings have complex interests (to eat, to live,…) and they have a high complexity (DNA, metabolism,…).

But some living beings can perceive their environments, or respond to their environments in even more complex ways, because they have nervous systems that allow them  to have inner, neural representations of their bodies and environments.  Although they are unconscious (like robots), these sensorineural,  perceptive or responsive beings, such as invertebrate animals, have even more complex interests and they have complex reactions towards them.

But some responsive beings have more: a central nervous system that generates a perceptual consciousness. They are subjectively aware of their environments and bodies. Their representations of the environment and their bodies are accompanied with “qualia”, the subjective conscious experiences. Those qualia appear when the being has a focus or special attention towards an object. For example: through my fingers I can feel this book. I know the difference between this feeling and an absence of feeling, for example when my fingers are anaesthetized. However, just before I paid attention to this feeling of touch, I was not aware of it. There was an unconscious neural activity (no anaesthesia),  compared to what responsive beings might experience. But only after I focused at my fingertips, it became a conscious experience or “quale” of touch.  This focus or attention is important in the conscious experience, and it might be possible to see this in the behavior of some animals, because the focus decreases the awareness of  other things. For example, a cat focusing at his prey is no longer paying attention to other  things. Or a fish  (e.g. a trout) injected with a venom becomes preoccupied with the pain,  so that it pays no heed to a threat coming towards him. These are indicators that those animals have qualia, because they are analogous to our behavior when we have qualia. Now, qualia are often neutral. I don’t feel an urge to avoid touching books. The touch of a book has no influence on my will. But other qualia are affective in nature, they are evaluated. as being positive or negative For example, the feeling of a needle in my finger generates a quale that I wish to avoid. This quale is called pain and it generates an urge in me. Those affective or evaluated qualia are the positive or negative feelings and emotions such as pain, fear, distress, joy,… So this is where well-being comes into play. These feelings are related to interests or needs, they are nothing else but subjective experiences of (un)satisfied interests. Fear indicates that the need for safety is not satisfied, pain indicates that the interest of bodily integrity is violated, frustration may indicate a need for freedom. Responsive beings who have evaluated qualia are called  sentient beings. They are subjectively aware of their interests, so they not only have interests, they not only react to them in complex ways, but they can also subjectively feel them. These are the beings that have a subjective well-being, so things subjectively matter to them. Responsive beings with only unconscious experiences or neutral qualia, have no well-being, because the well-being is composed of evaluated qualia that are positive (joy,..) or negative (pain, frustration,…).

Finally there are the rational beings. These are sentient beings with a self-consciousness and rational agency. They not only have complex interests, they not only react to them, they not only feel them, but they know and understand them. These beings have the most complex emotional lives, with a future perspective, dreams, projects,…

So we clearly have a gradation of complexity of beings. Now, looking at the definition of the basic right, it refers to the use as merely means to someone else’s ends. But the ends also have a gradation. There is a difference between luxury and vital needs. So it would be very natural to couple the gradation of complexity in interests to the gradation of the ends. Let’s look at this gradation in ends in more detail, from luxury needs to survival ends.

Luxury: these are needs that have a positive contribution to someone’s well-being when satisfied, but these needs are created by society and we can create circumstances where these needs no longer need to be satisfied in order to have an increase in well-being. Luxury needs are volatile, relative and variable. Examples are fashion, social status symbols and needs created by commercial advertisements.

Basic needs: these are needs that are not required in order to stay healthy and alive, that have a positive contribution to someone’s well-being, are stable and not determined by society. Examples are social contact, knowledge, recreation,…

Vital needs: these are needs that need to be satisfied in order to stay alive and healthy, such as medicines and health care.

Survival ends: these are vital needs that are not only important for individuals, but are also important for biodiversity (survival of species,…). Examples are food, water, air, sexual activity,… There is a morally relevant distinction between survival ends and merely vital needs. Vital needs are characterized by one criterion: necessity. Survival ends, on the other hand, are characterized by three criteria: natural, normal and necessary. Natural means that the behavior is directly developed by evolution (genetic mutations and natural selection), and as biodiversity is defined by everything that directly evolved from evolution, natural behavior contributes to biodiversity. Natural plus normal means that the behavior is natural and happens a lot, and therefore contributes a lot to biodiversity. And natural plus normal plus necessary means that much biodiversity will be lost when the behavior would stop. Eating food is natural, normal and necessary. Organ transplantations or medical experiments are necessary, but not natural and normal. Therefore, for a patient in the hospital, new organs or medicines can be a vital need but not a survival end. In summary, survival ends are in some sense stronger than vital needs. The difference between survival ends and vital needs is related to the moral value of biodiversity, which is threatened if survival ends are not satisfied.

The following figure represents the coupling of two gradations: complexity in interests and ends. What we see is that our approach contains the Kantian idea that rational beings are never to be used as merely means. But we extend this basic right to other beings. Doing this makes our theory more coherent with some moral intuitions. The first intuition says that mentally disabled humans (non-rational beings) are not to be used for vital, basic and luxury needs. The second intuition is that it is self-evident to couple the basic right with the notion of interests, because rights are devices to protect interests. The third intuition is that it is self-evident to couple the complexity in interests with respect for that being, and to interpret respect in terms of the basic right not to be used as merely means. The fourth intuition says that it is self-evident to couple gradations with each other, and the formulation of the basic right in terms of use as means for ends serves perfectly for such a coupling. This coupling immediately solves the question of who gets the basic right.

Figure 1. The coupling between ends and complexity in interests. An X means that the being has a right not to be used as merely means for the respective ends. For example: it is not allowed to kill and use a living being for luxury needs. Rational beings are never to be used.  

Looking at the above figure, we get four ethical principles. (It is actually a continuum of principles, because there are not only four types of beings, but a continuum of beings with gradually more complexity. There is also a continuum of ends, because there are no sharp boundaries between e.g. luxury and basic needs.)

1) All non-responsive living beings (plants, living cells,…) have an equal claim to the basic right not to be used a merely means for our luxury needs. This implies sobriety, no commercial advertisements, no status consumption…

2) All non-sentient responsive beings (invertebrates,…) have an equal claim to the basic right not to be used as merely means for luxury and basic needs. We are allowed to use them for vital needs (e.g. experiments). Eating animal products (from both sentient and non-sentient animals) is not a vital need for us, because we can live healthy with a well-planned vegan diet (according to the American Dietetic Association). So eating animal products is not allowed when it is not a vital need or a survival end.

3) All non-rational sentient beings (vertebrates, mentally disabled humans,…) have an equal claim to the basic right not to be used as merely means for vital, basic and luxury needs. Experimenting on animals or using them for xenotransplantation would not be allowed. But eating animals is allowed when it is a survival end. For example predators (and some indigenous people) are allowed to eat meat, because they became dependent (by evolution) on other animals in order to survive. It’s a survival end, because biodiversity will be lost if all predation would be prohibited. Of course predators are only allowed to eat animals until feasible alternatives are found.

4) All rational beings (mentally healthy human adults and children) have an equal claim to the basic right never to be used as merely means. Eating rational beings is never allowed, not even for survival ends. We should protect rational beings from predators if we can.

Of course violations of the basic right are allowed when the consequentialist principle is very strongly violated. The basic right is not absolute, because our moral intuition says that it would be inefficient to let thousands of people die simply because we don’t want to violate the basic right of one individual. We have a small but non-zero need for efficiency.

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