Semantic investigation of the term ‘to have (moral) rights’


The position of the fathered but still unborn child is acknowledged in certain fundamental rights. It has the legal capacity to hold rights, for instance the right not to be killed if the conditions for a legal abortion are not fulfilled. But below we will exclusively deal with non fathered, ‘potential’ individuals. According to Beckerman, the general proposition that future generations cannot have anything, including rights, follows from the meaning of the present tense of the verb ‘to have’. ‘Unborn people simply cannot have anything. They cannot have two legs or long hair or a taste for Mozart’, Beckerman writes in the Intergenerational Justice Review (Beckerman 2004; 1999; 1994). Beckerman’s argument is correct, but of minor importance. It reminds us to use the future tense instead of the present tense, that is, to say: ‘Future Generations will have rights’ instead of ‘Future Generations have rights’. It is important to understand that Beckerman’s argument cannot be used to denounce the term ‘rights’ and to replace it by ‘needs’, ‘interests’, ‘wishes’ and the like. If future generations cannot have ‘rights’, they cannot have ‘interests’ and so on, either. They will have interests, just as they will have rights. If we want to favour the term ‘interests’ over ‘rights’, we must find other arguments. The hint to using the future tense instead of the present tense in the wording of constitutional amendments is just a minor aspect. It is more important which nouns, verbs or adjectives are chosen. Beckerman claims that his argument denounces the term ‘rights of future generations’ (Beckerman 2004; 1999), but he is incorrect.

Having rejected Beckerman’s claim does not of course mean that we have proven that it is more appropriate to use ‘rights’ instead of another noun in constitutional amendments.