The Ethics of Human Rights (71): The Rights of the Dead

Can the living violate the rights of the dead? Assuming that the dead are gone, they can’t be harmed. So the obvious answer would be “no”. And yet, I’m not alone in feeling uncomfortable about cases such as the death of Whitney Houston some time ago: certain very intimate and private details about her and her death were leaked to the press. So in some sense we believe that the dead deserve privacy.

Also some time ago, there was an uproar about Mormons posthumously baptizing people. Maybe this is harmless: the dead, again, can’t be harmed. If you believe in an afterlife, then things are different of course. For non-Mormon believers, posthumous baptism harms the dead because their wishes and agency are intact after death and are not respected by posthumous baptizers; for Mormons, on the other hand, a lot of good is done because it saves the dead from eternal damnation. But again, it seems like a belief in an afterlife isn’t a requirement for having a feeling of unease about the practice. Even the dead deserve respect of their agency and their choices in life. Posthumous baptism implies a negative judgment about people’s lives. Unintentionally, it also implies a negative judgment of the religion that engages in the practice: if you can’t convince the living to join your church and feel the need to co-opt them after death, then that says a lot about your appeal.

I could cite many other cases: there was this one about funeral disturbances; there’s of course the rule against necrophilia; and the argument against presumed consent for organ donation also relies on the rights of the dead (“my dead body belongs to me and the state can’t just confiscate it for organ donations if I haven’t explicitly consented to this”). Personally, I find this latter invocation of the rights of the dead much less appealing than the other ones I’ve cited: if the right to speech and the right to vote die with us, why not the right to control our bodies? Still, I mention the case because it’s testimony to a widespread belief that the dead have at least some rights.

Many of these discussions are “contaminated” by the effects of certain practices on the living. For example, it can be seen as offensive to living Jews if dead Jews are systematically baptized posthumously. We want to ignore those effects for argument’s sake and in order to determine whether the dead have certain rights. I now think they do.

If I’m right, this supports my previously stated view that human rights are about more than protection against harm – if the dead can’t be harmed and have rights nonetheless, then rights aren’t just about harm.

More on the rights of the dead here and here. More posts in this series are here.