Should starving shipwrecked sailors have the right to eat the weakest one in order to save themselves or should the destitute poor be allowed to take another’s property to survive? These classical and well-known moral dilemmas provide examples of extreme necessity caused by radical life-treating circumstances. By considering an action that is normally regarded as immoral and illegal, they invite us to conceptualise the idea of an exceptional moral prerogative of individuals engaging in otherwise wrongful acts in order to survive. Such moral dilemmas have been the subject of lively academic debates since antiquity and are still pressing questions in our own age, faced as it is with challenges such as climate change and the problems of migration and global poverty.
From antiquity onwards, many authors have addresses the case of necessity by focusing on the limits of legislation. The maxim necessitas non habet legem (necessity has no law) meant, for example in the case of a destitute person in urgent need, that (s)he may take another’s property in order to survive, the act not being considered a theft but a retreat to the state of common use. In the beginning of the 13th century, some canon lawyers came up with a novel answer: a person in extreme need uses his or her own right. Whether the right of necessity was developed to cover the urgent aid of the poor in a medieval society faced with growing poverty is uncertain but seems possible: The right of necessity was soon also enshrined in European common laws. The right also paved the way for the individual rights of subsistence among late medieval theologians and found a prominent place in the writings of early modern authors such as Hobbes, Pufendorf, and Locke. Although their interpretations of the principle of necessity differ, they all recognised its importance for humankind’s fundamental right and/or duty to sustain life.
The general aim of the research project, At the Frontiers of Humanity: Extreme Necessity in the History of Ethics, Law and Politics, 300–1600, is to investigate the ways in which the maxim of extreme necessity (“necessity has no law”) has been used and interpreted in the Western intellectual history from the years 300 to 1600. More particularly, the project focuses on the legal, moral psychological and theological underpinnings as well as political principles that were important in the early development of the right of subsistence.
The objectives of the research project can be summarised as follows:
- to provide a more comprehensive picture of the interpretation and impact of the maxim of extreme necessity in the Western intellectual history;
- to build a new understanding of the legal, moral psychological and theological background as well as the political consequences of the maxim in the early history of subsistence rights;
- to explore the continuities and discontinuities between patristic and medieval as well as between medieval and early modern understandings of extreme necessity.
- to provide a survey of provincial laws concerning the right of necessity in medieval Scandinavian legislation.
Effects and impact beyond academia
The project’s focus, the emergency of subsistence rights and their close relation to human needs, offers useful historical understanding and conceptual tools when discussing the essentials and grounding of human rights at the margins. The historical sources (in law, ethics and politics) show that extreme necessity cases provided a grounding for the discussion on natural rights of subsistence. This concerns also nowadays world. Basic human needs are whatever people require to be able to achieve a level of functioning that satisfies a given ethical conception of the acceptable minimum. Their denial puts human dignity at serious risk.
The project maintains the “ethics of subsistence” as an important perspective also from a broader perspective when discussing, for example the quality of life or care and aging or when reflecting the pressing extreme problems of today’s world at the frontiers of ecological and humanitarian crises.