Imagine the following:
In a bad neighborhood, plagued by outbursts of violent crime, one of the neighbors is wealthy and middle aged. Let us call him Mr. Greece.
His property borders on the ramshackle dwelling of a young adult who is destitute and ill. His name is Mr. Macedonia.
Mr. Greece insists that Mr. Macedonia change his name. He gives many reasons for his unusual request, not the least of which is that “Macedonia” has been the name of some of his forefathers and is the epithet of the south wing of his sprawling property. It is, therefore, part of his identity and heritage.
Mr. Macedonia, having been subjected to a siege of his property by his neighbor, has agreed in the past to tweak his coat of arms, but refuses to alter his name. He claims that the name “Macedonia” has been in his family for generations. Mr. Greece asks that Mr. Macedonia add a qualifier to his name so as to make clear that he has no designs on his neighbor’s prosperous property. Mr. Greece suggests: “Mr. down-the-road Macedonia” or “Mr. Macedonia (corner Alm Street)”.
Until the issue is resolved, Mr. Greece won’t allow Mr. Macedonia to join the city’s various civic organizations and clubs, or to enjoy communal services. Should Mr. Macedonia’s property be engulfed by flames or immersed in a flood, he is on his own, as he cannot expect the help of the fire brigade or the police (NATO). Mr. Macedonia can’t find a job, transact business, or trade without being a member of said associations.
The question is:
Does Mr. Greece have a moral right to ask his neighbor to change his name? Is Mr. Greece right – not in the legalistic, but in the ethical sense – to impose sanctions on Mr. Macedonia?
The answer to this question is not as straightforward as one might wish or intuit.
First, we must ask ourselves: what are the rights possessed by the two parties to the dispute?
Rights – whether moral or legal – impose obligations or duties on third parties towards the right-holder. One has a right against other people and thus can prescribe to them certain obligatory behaviors and proscribe certain acts or omissions. Rights and duties are two sides of the same ethical coin.
This duality confuses people. They often erroneously identify rights with their attendant duties or obligations, with the morally decent, or even with the morally permissible. One’s rights inform other people how they must behave towards one – not merely how they should or ought to act morally. Moral behaviour is not dependent on the existence of a right. People should behave morally even in the absence of specific rights. Obligations, however, are dependent on the existence of a right. People are obliged to behave in specific ways only when a right exists.
Let us examine two examples of such confusion:
1. The Right to have One’s Life Saved
There is no such right because there is no moral obligation or duty to save the life of a collective or an individual. Thus, when a nation or an individual finds itself attacked unjustly with its life threatened, it has no right to demand assistance from any individual or collective. It is on its own. Individuals and groups may volunteer to come to its aid (as they did, for instance, in the Spanish Civil War), but they are under no obligation or duty to do so.
2. The Right to Terminate One’s Life which yields the right to disband, dissolve, secede, and dismantle collective structures such as states (or, in individuals, the right to commit suicide or request euthanasia). All these actions are often considered to be immoral or undesirable. People ought not commit suicide and states should not fall apart. But, the fact is that the right to do so exists and it imposes obligations on others not to interfere with or prevent its exercise by the right-holder.
Back to the feuding neighbors.
Human collectives, such as nations, and individuals clearly possess the following rights (among many others):
The Right to Exist which yields the prohibition against genocide (and murder) and against cultural genocide and ethnic cleansing.
Mr. Greece unequivocally accepts Mr. Macedonia’s right to exist and, therefore, is in compliance with this particular moral duty.
The Right to be Brought to Life and to Maintain one’s Identity which imposes obligations on third parties to respect and not to interfere with a collective’s will to attain nationhood and, subject to applicable international law, statehood. Similarly third parties must accept free and legal choices made by an individual regarding his or her identity.
Mr. Greece did not interfere with Mr. Macedonia’s wishes to own a house and run it as he sees fit. He is, therefore, in compliance with this part of his moral duty. Mr. Greece, however, rejects Mr. Macedonia’s self-promulgated identity and tries to change it on pain of sanctions. In acting so, he is violating Mr. Macedonia’s right. Mr. Greece justifies his behavior by resorting to the exception delineated below.
The Right to be Born which yields the principle of self-determination.
Mr. Greece accepted, though grudgingly and skeptically, Mr. Macedonia’s right to live in the neighborhood as an independent homeowner.
The Right to Have One’s Life Maintained which yields the principles of non-aggression, the peaceful conduct of international relations, access to humanitarian and medical aid even in times of war, and a host of other rights that guarantee the perpetuation of decent life and its maintenance. These principles apply to interpersonal relationships as well.
By imposing sanctions on Mr. Macedonia, Mr. Greece has clearly and repeatedly reneged on this moral obligation and, thus, has violated Mr. Macedonia’s right to a decent and well-maintained (“good”) life. Mr. Greece justifies this prima facie immoral behavior by resorting to the same exception (as per below).
The Right not to be Killed and to Save One’s Own Life which yields the right to self-defense (though not the right to preemptive action to fend off a potential or perceived threat).
One exception to these rights is:
If the continued existence of a collective (or individual) is predicated on the repeated and continuous violation of the rights of others – and these other people object to such breaches and infringements being perpetrated against them – then the offending collective (or individual) must be punished or even “killed” if that is the only way to right the wrong and re-assert the rights of the collective’s (or individual’s) victims.
“Killing” in this exception has many manifestations, only few of them physical: the radical alteration or substitution of one’s identity, institutions, history, culture, language, territorial integrity, sovereignty, human and civil rights, and other crucial parameters of self-determination is tantamount to effectively “killing” or terminating the collective. In extremis, killing may also include the physical extermination of classes or groups of people (such as war criminals, members of the military, the political echelon, members of resistance movements, hate mongers, terrorists, etc.).
APPLYING THE RIGHTS and EXCEPTION to the case of Mr. Greece vs. Mr. Macedonia
Mr. Greece makes four cumulative claims:
1. That Mr. Macedonia’s refusal to modify his name violates Mr. Greece’s rights.
2. That the violation is repeated, flagrant and continuous.
3. That changing Mr. Macedonia’s name is the only way to right the wrong and re-assert the rights of Mr. Greece.
4. That, because Mr. Macedonia won’t change his name, Mr. Greece, resorting to the exception above, has the right to retaliate by, inter alia, abrogating Mr. Macedonia’s right to a decent life.
Let us examine each claim more deeply.
What rights of Mr. Greece are violated? Principally, his right to maintain his identity (to exist as the same Mr. Greece whose forefathers were Macedonians and whose house contains a wing called Macedonia).
Yet, Mr. Macedonia’s right to maintain his identity (to exist as Mr. Macedonia) are directly challenged by Mr. Greece’s insistence that he change his name.
We are, therefore, faced with two identical, equipotent claims. This is known as a moral dilemma. It can be resolved only if we prove that one of the horns of the dilemma has been misstated or is based on falsities. Both Mr. Greece and Mr. Macedonia are trying to do just that: prove that the other side is misrepresenting facts (lying) and is acting out of ulterior motives (does not really feel violated or aggrieved).
Can we right one wrong (the breach of Mr. Greece’s rights) by effecting another (the violation of Mr. Macedonia’s rights)? Of course not. If the arguments of the two parties have merit, there is no ethical solution to the problem. The calculus of moral rights in this case is insoluble. The issue will be decided in accordance with the balance of might, not the appeal to what’s right.
Is changing Mr. Macedonia’s name the only way to address the wrong done and re-assert the rights of Mr. Greece?
Again, If Mr. Greece is truthful, the answer is yes. But, then, we will have righted one wrong (against Mr. Greece) by committing another (against Mr. Macedonia). We are back to square one.
Is Mr. Greece justified in violating Mr. Macedonia’s right to a decent life in order to force Mr. Macedonia to change its name and thus right the wrong done to Mr. Greece?
No way. Violating another person’s right in order to uphold one’s own is rarely justified, though such behaviour cannot be condemned. Here we have the flip side of the confusion we opened with: Mr. Greece’s behaviour, though understandable and perhaps inevitable, is also morally reprehensible. One should never knowingly violate another person’s rights, even if only to force that person to right a wrong.
Sam Vaknin is Associate Editor of Global Politician and Regional Correspondent for the Chronicle Media Group, USA. He is a political and economic analyst and commentator. His articles and books are available here: http://samvak.tripod.com/guide.html