I'm writing an argumentative paper on a controversial topic, and the stance I want to take is that there are certain actions that an individual can take (such as terrorism, child molestation) that cause you to forfeit your human rights (or the right to be treated like a human being, with decency and justice).

The idea is "why should you be expected to be treated with human rights when you refused to do the same?"

I know an argument against this is that human rights aren't associated with actions, but with one simply being a human. My counterargument to this is that by committing the aforementioned actions, you cease to be a human in the greater sense. Sure, you may be biologically human, but when it comes to everything else, are you really human? If you blow up a building and kill hundreds of innocent people including children, how can you possibly call yourself human and demand to be treated with human rights?

Are there any philosophers, political thinkers and other authors that have a similar viewpoint? I'd like some literature and similar sources to test my arguments.

  • Are you saying that a living being biologically classified as a human is actually a human only if his actions are moral? Commented Jul 9, 2017 at 18:37
  • 3
    The idea of taking away someone's human rights seems a little extreme (that sounds like you're advocating that it's okay to torture or murder someone, make them a slave, etc., for committing a crime). Human rights are rights that every human should have. Your redefining of the term human doesn't float. However, if you want to focus on the idea of punishment, the idea that someone who does something wrong should be punished is called retributive justice. That link contains a very good introduction to the idea, with a bibliography.
    – Not_Here
    Commented Jul 9, 2017 at 19:04
  • I think the first thing I'd do is distance myself from the term "human rights," which many consider by definition to be the things you cannot take away, even in such cases. I'd instead try to argue that many of the things we call "human rights" may not ideally be human rights, but merely something which is close--but which can be taken away. The last thing you want in a controversial piece like that is to start with a statement the reader considers to be false by definition, in which case the entire rest of the paper is a waste of paper. Better to break free of the definition first.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Jul 9, 2017 at 19:43
  • and if you change the definition of human rights to fit what 'you think' is considered contemporaneously as 'good and moral' or any other crime that is considered abhorrent according to current thinking, what happens in the future? What is considered moral and good in one culture may not be in another. As an old man, I have in my own lifetime seen what is considered good and moral shift in different ways - sometimes to what I consider the good and sometimes to what I consider bad. Be careful when you try to change your definitions to your own current ends - it may come and bite you back. Commented Jul 10, 2017 at 5:18
  • by your own logic, if someone else acts like an animal, then its ok for me to do so also... Commented Jul 10, 2017 at 5:20

7 Answers 7


You posit that the culpable actions of an individual make the individual forfeit her basic rights. You ask what would be the name of the moral principle equivalent to your posit. The harm principle and the retributive principle suggested by Dwarf and Oke, respectively, might be adequate in many situations of criminal justice, but they have narrow applicability. The harm principle for instance does not address the question of who is at fault. If a man wielding a knife tries to kill you, and you try to save your life by attacking him back, the man with the knife could appeal to the harm principle, arguing that your counter-attack harms him. Clearly, we want a moral principle that does not allow the man with the knife to appeal to the harm principle since our intuition is that harming others in self-defense is morally permissible.

The needed principle that incorporates culpability in harm calculation is called the fault-forfeit-first principle. That is, the faulty or culpable person forfeits her rights first, and thus she may not counter-attack the counter-attack of an innocent person. The guiding idea of the principle was extensively investigated by Judith Thomson in her paper entitled "Self-defense," although I think Richard Arneson is the one who coined the name, the fault-forfeit-first principle. Arneson defines the principle as follows: "when a predicament arises where someone is going to be killed, it is morally better that, of the parties involved, the one who is seriously culpable or blameworthy in some way should be killed rather than people who are fully innocent.” The principle is mainly appealed to in the paradigm of just war theories.

  • I'm voting this down. On reflection I must withdraw my previous comment. What is written (above) is simply in error. The person with the knife could appeal to the Natural Right of Liberty, Life or Pursuit of Happiness (or, possibly, to whatever the International Human Rights Doctrine offers).They can not appeal to the Harm Principle, which is a principle of the lawmaker and the judge to make laws and to interpret into particular cases. The Harm Principle is that "evil" which is, according to, e.g., Thomas Paine, the necessary thing, Government. It is positive law acting to limit Natural Right.
    – user26700
    Commented Jul 11, 2017 at 20:55

Locke, to whom the doctrine of human rights is often traced, supported the idea that the human rights can be forfeited when a human is "revolting from his own kind to that of Beasts". In other words, in the original conception human rights were not unconditional and "unalienable":

"Whosoever uses force without Right , as everyone does in Society, who does it without Law, puts himself into a state of War with those, against whom he so uses it, and in that state all former Ties are cancelled, all other Rights cease... he renders himself liable to be destroyed by the injur’d person and the rest of mankind, that will joyn with him in the execution of Justice, as any other wild beast, or noxious brute with whom Mankind can have neither Society nor Security".

This is often pointed out by modern authors in connection with terrorism, see e.g. Miller's Are Human Rights Conditional? The idea of "inalienable" rights common in modern liberalism is more recent, and, as Miller points out, while verbally proclaimed is rarely actually practiced. It is also hard to ground it philosophically, one would need some form of ethical realism with a touch of human exceptionalism to write some special rights, which remain immune to any and all pragmatic considerations of context and purpose, into "human nature". It is nonetheless popular as a political ideology, perhaps as a pre-emptive mechanism against the slippery slope to the kinds of atrocities witnessed in the World Wars, or more recently Rwandan genocide, which were aided by prior dehumanization of the victims.

The rights forfeiture theory of punishment, according to which criminals have forfeited their right not to be treated harshly (and I suppose, terrorists forfeited their right not to be tortured), is closer to Locke's original conception, and is expressed e.g. by Ross in The Right and the Good (1930):

"...the offender, by violating the life or liberty or property of another, has lost his own right to have his life, liberty, or property respected, so that the state has no prima facie duty to spare him, as it has a prima facie duty to spare the innocent. It is morally at liberty to injure him as he has injured others, or to inflict any lesser injury on him, or to spare him, exactly as consideration both of the good of the community and of his own good requires."

However, the rights forfeiture doctrine is not without its own problems, which make it unattractive to many. But it has been defended recently by Wellman in The Rights Forfeiture Theory of Punishment, who analogizes the ethics of forfeiture in general to that of self-defense and war killings analyzed by Otsuka, Thomson and McMahan, among others:

"I would stress that self-defense is commonly understood in terms of rights forfeiture, and the most sophisticated debates in these areas are more specifically about whether so-called aggressors and threats can forfeit their rights by merely posing a threat to others... And regarding the ethics of killing in war, notice that Jeff McMahan has (convincingly, I think) argued that we should jettison the dominant just war tradition’s understanding of rights forfeiture (which stipulates that all combatants—whether just or unjust—are equally liable, while all noncombatants enjoy immunity) in favor of a more nuanced and moral responsibility-sensitive understanding of who forfeits which rights in war.

[...] The standard objections include (1) the problem of justification, (2) the problem of status, (3) the problem of indeterminate authorization, (4) the problem of relatedness, (5) the problem of suitability, (6) the problem of duration and breadth, and (7) the problem of rights type. As I will now argue, though, none of these standard objections is compelling."

  • 3
    All theories have the full-frontal aspect and the saving-the-ass aspect. Even Judith Thomson, the provider of the best abortion argument ever, in her abortion paper concedes the moral impermissibility of abortion (a seven month pregnant woman planning to wear bikini may not). Locke's forfeiture condition is the saving the ass, while his natural rights is the full frontal. Thus it seems inappropriate to use Locke as the guy to propose the forfeiture condition. I wonder what is your response to my objection. By the way, great to see you back in SE! Your answers are always worthy to read! Commented Jul 11, 2017 at 19:17
  • 1
    I'm not voting down, but abstaining. Yet, I hold that this doesn't work because one no longer believes in retrogression to the bestial state. The current notion is that we have sick human beings. Ergo, the insanity defense.
    – user26700
    Commented Jul 11, 2017 at 21:00
  • 3
    @NanheeByrnesPhD Locke lived in rough times, what seems like a pragmatic cover to us he could have meant more sincerely. In any case, modern defenders of rights forfeiture do trace their lineage to Locke, and even draw parallels between what inspired the doctrine then and now. Writes Miller:“Locke understood that liberal societies might have to defend themselves against would-be oppressors in their midst… In 1689 (or thereabouts) one could not assume that liberal institutions were so firmly entrenched that liberal tolerance could be extended to those who sought to destroy them.
    – Conifold
    Commented Jul 11, 2017 at 21:07
  • 1
    Thanks for the Miller reference. Satisfied with your response! Commented Jul 11, 2017 at 21:19
  • 1
    As this is already a great answer, I just propose to add German Idealism, especially Fichte and Hegel, who argued that punishment and loss of rights is included in the conception of crime, i.e. fulfilling the culprit's own will. This does include many rights we think of as human rights, including life. This kind of circumvented the problem of autonomy and unalienable dignity coming from the original right formulated by Kant, which they both accepted as being linked to reason. As Kant's notion of dignity is at the core of modern Human Rights, these arguments seem important.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Jul 19, 2017 at 6:55

Given all this contention around whether the definition of human rights makes your claim impossible, the best tack might be to start from a position that does not accept the notion of human rights at all, either by antedating it, or by coming from a totally non-rights orientation.

Many forms of ethics implicitly argue that any right can be taken away, because 'right' is the wrong way to look at things ethically. After all, this is a political idea, in origin, not an ethical one.

As others have noted, basic Utilitarianism contains that implicitly. Since good is limited by harm, if something is enough of a danger to enough people, stopping it is warranted, whatever that requires.

For someone coming from a purely dialectical perspective, the set of expectations a society has automatically proposes an alternative set, and those will resolve into something better than either -- so setting out a list of inviolable human rights is a terrible idea, contrary to the evolutionary nature of thought. Who knows what will happen to our ethics over time? We have the concept of human rights right now because we, as a global meta-culture, are seeking to form a global meta-legal system with some core. Once that is established, the basis on which it formed will naturally and automatically change.

From the point of view of realpolitik, you can take away anyone's human rights because we can't agree on what they are -- you can just choose a framing that excludes the given right in question and proceed from there, then switch when you get to the next right.

  • "After all, this is a political idea, in origin, not an ethical one."In the West, since Plato, the question of Justice has been at the center of Philosophy. Greeks considered the logos(deliberation, dialogic discussion,) inherently political, part of the life of the Polis (the word from which political is derived).The distinction between "ethics", whatever that may mean, and something else, e.g.,"morals",is only made in recent decades, wholly arbitrarily by usage in the anglo-American universities. One is left to read what you put down as a radically-arbitrary claim about what the past means.
    – user26700
    Commented Jul 12, 2017 at 20:23
  • @Dwarf And justice, for Plato was not related to 'rights' as we know them, each thing was proper to the person or station, in the Republic. There were not rules that afforded the same protection to everyone involved. Rights, in the unwritten-contract sense, are traced to the Enlightenment, and enter through Locke, a political philosopher, after the period when these things split. For most of ethics going back before that, 'rights' are not the right way of describing what is going on.
    – user9166
    Commented Jul 13, 2017 at 15:04
  • "Rights" has to do with social contract: that's perfectly true.Though I would quibble and say Hobbes. He argued that we all can be killed, and even the weakest can kill the strongest when they sleep, so we are, by nature, equal. But I would say Plato is the first Political Philosopher,and that is generally agreed upon. It is still a study of ethos, or mores.I.e.,: What is the right way of doing things or living according to nature.The change consists of the fiction that man exists prior to his social existence. It's distinct from positive law, in that It asks about nature's purpose for man.
    – user26700
    Commented Jul 14, 2017 at 18:11
  • Addendum: The reason one is said to have a "right" is because of the pretense that one entered the Social Contract. Rather than owing obligations to the country in which one is born. The distinction you raise is intelligible, but I think that is not the best way to speak about it.
    – user26700
    Commented Jul 14, 2017 at 18:17

Are there any philosophers, political thinkers and other authors that have a similar viewpoint as mine?

You are talking about a lot of thinkers. Almost all of them, in fact.

In one way or another, most political philosophers argue for a loss of rights when the individual violates some fundamental value of the society. The only question is when and how humanity is lost: under what circumstances, and to what extent. On that more specific question there is a lot less agreement. Your bigger challenge is to find a thinker who does not support that argument.


Harm Principle is the greatest regulative principle, and the greatest power in the current legal world. The 'anti-human' is, under that principle, whoever restricts liberty in the specific sense of being "invasive of the free acts of others".

One should litigate the question what, today, does the phrase Human Rights refer to?. Ultimately to the radically subjective understanding of the Pursuit of Happiness. Pursuit of happiness is limited only by the Harm Principle. If one is dead, one's right to pursue happiness is negated. Likewise, if one's liberty is restricted, it is unavailing.


You merely need to use the principle of retribution (google it in order to find some philosophical sources to mention in your paper).

Somebody who commits a heinous crime takes away the human rights of others. By the principle of retribution, their rights should be taken away as well.



On the matter of human rights, my favorite philosopher is George Carlin:

Here’s one more item for you, the last in our civics book: Rights. Boy, everyone in this country is always running around yammering about their ____ing rights. I have a right, you have no right, we have a right, they don’t have a right… Folks, I hate to spoil your fun, but there’s no such thing as rights, okay? They’re imaginary. We made them up! Like the Boogie Man… the Three Little Pigs, Pinocchio, Mother Goose, ___ like that.

Rights are an idea. They’re just imaginary. They are a cute idea, cute… but that’s all, cute, and fictional. But if you think you do have rights, let me ask you this: where do they come from? People say, well, they come from God, they’re God-given rights… Aw ____, here we go again… here we go again. The God excuse. The last refuge of a man with no answers and no argument, it came from God. Anything we can’t describe, must have come from God.

Personally, folks, I believe that if your rights came from God, he would have given you the right to have some food every day, and he would have given you the right to a roof over your head, God would have been looking out for you. God would have been looking out for you. You know that? He wouldn’t have been worrying about making sure you have a gun so you can get drunk on Sunday night and kill your girlfriend’s parents.

But let’s say it’s true, let’s say God gave us these rights. Why would he give us a certain number of rights? The Bill of Rights of this country has ten stipulations, okay? Ten rights. And apparently God was doing sloppy work that week because we had to amend the Bill of Rights an additional seventeen times. So God forgot a couple of things. Like… slavery! Just ____ing slipped his mind.

But let’s say, let’s say God gave us the original ten. He gave the British thirteen, the British Bill of Rights has thirteen stipulations. The Germans have twenty-nine, the Belgians have twenty-five, the Swedish have only six, and some people in the world have no rights at all. What kind of a ____ing goddamn God-given deal is that? No rights at all?

Why would God give different people in different countries different numbers of different rights? Boredom? Amusement? Bad arithmetic? Do we find out at long last after all this time that God is weak in math skills? Doesn’t sound like divine planning to me. Sounds more like human planning. Sounds more like one group trying to control another group. In other words, business as usual in America.

Now, if you think you do have rights, one last assignment for you. Next time you’re at the computer, get on the Internet, go to Wikipedia. When you get to Wikipedia, in the search field for Wikipedia, I want you to type in “Japanese Americans 1942,” and you’ll find out all about your precious ____ing rights, okay? All right. You know about it. You know about it. Ya.

In 1942, there were a 110,000 Japanese American citizens in good standing, law-abiding people, who were thrown into internment camps simply because their parents were born in the wrong country. That’s all they did wrong. They had no right to a lawyer, no right to a fair trial, no right to a jury of their peers, no right to due process of any kind. The only right they had, “right this way” – into the internment camps.

Just when these American citizens needed their rights the most, their government took ’em away. And rights aren’t rights if someone can take ’em away. They’re privileges, that’s all we’ve ever had in this country, is a bill of temporary privileges. And if you read the news even badly, you know that every year the list gets shorter and shorter and shorter. You see what I was saying…

Yeah… sooner or later the people in this country gonna realize the government does not give a ____ about them. The government doesn’t care about you, or your children, or your rights, or your welfare, or your safety, it simply doesn’t give a ____ about you. It’s interested in its own power, that’s the only thing, keeping it and expanding it wherever possible.

Personally, when it comes to rights, I think one of two things is true. I think either we have unlimited rights, or we have no rights at all. Personally, I lean toward unlimited rights, I feel for instance I have the right to do anything I please. But – if I do something you don’t like I think, you have the right to kill me.

So where you’re gonna find a fairer ____ing deal than that? So the next time some _______ says to you, I have a right to my opinion, you say, oh yeah, well I have a right to my opinion, and my opinion is you have no right to your opinion. Then, shoot the ____ and walk away!

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .