Over at Ethika Politika, Mattias Caro asks this in response to the discussion in my On the Square column discussion about inalienable rights:

An interesting question arises if Professor Rogers has inadvertently created a problem: if certain rights are inalienable then would it not be immoral for a person to renounce those rights, such as, say a monk who swears poverty (renouncing the right to property) or even to obey always a rule or superior (renouncing the right of liberty), or even a martyr who willingly gives himself up to a just cause (renouncing life). Seems that the argument he is constructing does not necessarily fit anecdotally with the Western tradition.

Good questions, but I “think” the response is straightforward. Starting with the last example first, the case of the martyr: In the theory of the Declaration, life is an inalienable right because God has endowed us with that right. So, too, in Locke, a person cannot commit suicide because God owns us rather than we ourselves.

What that means is that our lives are at God’s disposal even though they are not at our own disposal. God authorizes martyrdom in certain cases, as he authorizes sacrificing our lives to save others, or allows us to kill attackers to save innocents. We can give our lives away for God’s purposes, but not for our own purposes. I’d think that a version of the same answer can apply to the question about the liberty of monks.

Further, while I don’t know anything about the theology of promise in Catholic orders, I’d assume that a Superior cannot command a member to commit an ungodly act. So promising a Superior obedience to a command that is sinful would seem to me to be the alienation of something that is inalienable.

Articles by James R. Rogers

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