Inalienable Rights: The Limits of Consent in Medicine and the Law

Inalienable Rights: The Limits of Consent in Medicine and the Law

Inalienable Rights: The Limits of Consent in Medicine and the Law

Inalienable Rights: The Limits of Consent in Medicine and the Law


This book explains what inalienable rights are and how they restrict the behavior of their possessors. McConnell develops compelling arguments to support the inalienability of the right to life, the right of conscience, and a competent person's right not to have medical treatment administered without consent. Yet, surprisingly, he argues that the inalienability of the right to life does not entail that voluntary euthanasia or assisted suicide are wrong. This distinctive defense of inalienable rights will appeal to medical ethicists and other applied ethicists, political theorists, and philosophers of law.


I began thinking about the topic of inalienable rights in the early 1980s. While teaching courses in the philosophy of law, I often used books and articles written by Joel Feinberg. As anyone reading this probably knows, Feinberg’s works are invariably clear, informative, and provocative. I used his essay on inalienable rights (discussed extensively in chapter 1 of this book) in several of my classes. It stimulated much discussion among students and much thought on my part. Prominent among the issues that Feinberg’s essay raised in my mind were questions about the very concept of an inalienable right, questions about the relationship between inalienable rights and paternalism, and wonder about what normative implications follow from a commitment to the inalienability of some rights.

All of this reflection led me to publish a paper in 1984 discussing some of these issues. After that, I began working on other projects, including a scholarly book and the second edition of a textbook. I did not return to full reflection on the issues raised by inalienable rights until the mid-1990s. But in the intervening time, questions about inalienable rights arose occasionally, especially in teaching biomedical ethics. I have finally been able to address these questions in detail in writing this book.

Much of the work done on this book was during the academic year 1995–1996. Generous support for my research and writing was provided by two sources: the National Endowment for the Humanities, which awarded me a Fellowship for College Teachers; and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, which provided me with a year-long research assignment, thereby freeing me from teaching and administrative responsibilities. Without this support, this book would still be unfinished. I am happy to express my gratitude to both of these institutions.

Some of the positions defended here in chapters 1 and 2 were presented in my paper, “The Nature and Basis of Inalienable Rights,” Law and Philosophy, Vol. 3 (April 1984), pp. 25–59. Though what is presented in this book is revised and considerably more developed, some ideas from the original essay are used with kind permission from Kluwer Academic Publishers.

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