Last night's post argued that rights cannot be morally fundamental because it's a contingent matter what rights will promote human welfare. I want to establish this point as strongly as possible by showing that even the right to life itself is contingent. I will describe a (highly fantastical) hypothetical situation in which a society would be morally required to limit the right to life, and sometimes actively kill innocent people. [Non-philosophers are reminded that this in no way implies support for government killings in our (very different!) situation. Please take care to understand the argument before hurling insults.]
Badland: The people of Badland are haunted by an evil deity named 'God', who shows every indication of being omniscient, omnipotent, and truthful, though he has a taste for human sacrifice. God installed a magical lottery machine in the town centre, and explained to the townsfolk that, once a month, the device will pick one of their names at random. They are expected to sacrifice this person to God, and if they do so then God will leave them alone till next month. However, if the chosen person remains alive after 24 hours, then the furious and spiteful God will wreak havoc and cause thirty random townsfolk to spontaneously combust.
Naturally enough, the folk of Badland weren't too happy about this deal, and initially ignored God's threats. So thirty of them died. Another time they tried to trick God by holding a mock sacrifice. Being omniscient, God saw right through this, and another thirty died. Eventually the villagers learnt their lesson, and reluctantly amended their laws so that the unlucky lottery winner must be killed within the day. (They still held out hopes that the situation might one day change, but alas, they had no chance.)
All the reasonable folk agreed to this new law, because they could see that it was in everyone's best interests. Granting an inviolable "right to life" would make each of them far more likely to die. Better to grant a more limited right, which protects against everyday violence, of course, but nevertheless allows that the unfortunate lottery winners may - nay, must - be killed.
There were some unreasonable folk who thought that their imagined natural rights were more important than real consequences. Thus sixty deontologists left to create their own society, though God made another lottery machine and informed them that they were bound by the same rules. Half of them died in the first month, and the others -- finally comprehending their impending doom -- crawled back to the indirect utilitarian society.
Others agreed to the new institution so long as it didn't cost them anything. But when their name came up on the lottery machine, they became newly concerned about their "right to life", and would try to bribe officials so that they were not bound by the same laws as everyone else. One time a very rich man managed to buy his way out of the system. In consequence, thirty other innocent people died in his place. The folk were outraged, and vowed never to let their institutions be so corrupted again. Justice requires that the randomly chosen innocent be killed, and it would be gravely immoral for them to not follow through on this.
As time passed, the institution become more embedded in the society, and the folk resigned themselves to it. To be chosen by God's lottery was seen as just another natural cause of death, like cancer or poverty (*cough*). Most went willingly, recognizing that it was just their bad luck to be chosen now, and that this same institution might well have saved their life in other circumstances. They blamed the evil God, of course, for creating this lamentable situation in the first place. But given the situation, they could all see that their society's response to it was entirely appropriate, and indeed morally mandatory.
That's the story. You might be intuitively tempted to apply the practical guidelines appropriate for our context on to that very different one, and hence conclude that the society was wrong to pacify God by instituting human sacrifice. You might think it indiscernible from "murder". But then, I think, you would be failing to take into account some very morally relevant differences. When you consider the scenario in its own terms, rather than ours, I think critical assessment of the situation inevitably leads to the conclusion that the society was correct to limit the right to life as they did. That's exactly what morality and justice required in response to their lamentable situation.
If any right is absolute, then it is surely the right to life. But we have seen that the right to life is not absolute, but rather situation-dependent. (Needless to say, it's a very important right that ought not to be compromised in our situation.) So rights are not absolute. And for less vital rights, like the right to property, we should consider various institutional options, since it may well be that a limited version of the right (allowing for some taxation and redistribution) would save lives and promote human flourishing in our situation. That's an empirical question. My moral/theoretical argument establishes that this is an empirical question we need to look into. You can't settle the debate merely by saying that "taxation is theft". Such conceptual confusion betrays the superficiality and inadequacy of the propertarian's politico-moral theory. It is superficial for its failure to distinguish internal violations from external assessments of a legal/institutional framework. And it is inadequate due to its bull-headed insensitivity to morally relevant empirical facts.