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In the first episode of Death Note, the speaker wonders whether he has the right to take people's lives as he wishes:

僕に勝手に人を裁く権利があるのか?

I understand that 勝手に means "as one pleases", but what nuance is 僕に adding? Does it mean "selfishly" ("for myself")?

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Let's break this sentence down into its simplest part.

権利【けんり】があるのか?
right [SUBJ] exists [EXPLANATORY] [QUESTION]?
Is there the right [to do something]?

Note that ある can also be translated as "to have", if this verb is used in relation to a person. The person "having" the thing is frequently marked with the topic particle は, as in 私【わたし】[は]{●}自転車【じてんしゃ】がある → "as for me, there is a bicycle / a bicycle exists" → "I have a bicycle".

The person can also be marked with the dative / locative particle に. Translating the construction [PERSON][THING]がある might be a bit like "by [PERSON], there exists [THING]". The phrasing is odd from an English-language point of view, but it isn't that uncommon in languages around the world -- we see close structural analogs in such far-flung languages as Hungarian, Navajo, and German. Even English, in certain cases.

Adding the person in, we get:

僕【ぼく】に権利【けんり】があるのか?
I [LOC] right [SUBJ] exists [EXPLANATORY] [QUESTION]?
Is there the right [to do something] by me / in me?
Do I have the right [to do something]?

And lastly, as I suspect you're already aware, the bit in the middle tells us specifically what kind of 権利【けんり】 or "right" we're talking about here -- the right to 勝手【かって】に人【ひと】を裁く【さばく】, or "freely judge people".

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    Thanks. It really clicked for me when you broke it down literally via "I [LOC] right [SUBJ] exists [COORDINATING] [QUESTION]?" One last thing though: What do you mean by [COORDINATING] here?
    – George
    Commented Sep 20, 2023 at 22:52
  • @George -- This usage of の is a kind of coordinating explanatory usage. Translating this directly, it might be like "it is the case that / is it the case that ..." (depending on whether it shows up in a statement or a question). One sec and I'll see if I can dig up a related thread or two. Commented Sep 20, 2023 at 23:02
  • @George -- ya, there's a lot to find: search results for "explanatory の". There's also a separate but related post of mine over here, touching on the nominalization role played by の after verbs. Hope this helps! Commented Sep 20, 2023 at 23:04
  • I'm familiar with the explanatory の, but just didn't know what why the word "COORDINATING" was associated with it.
    – George
    Commented Sep 21, 2023 at 2:57
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    @George -- Ah, that was a spur-of-the-moment choice, likely because I'd just been reading other threads about the use of の in coordinating clauses. :) On revisiting this post above, I see that that is indeed confusing, and I'll swap that out for "EXPLANATORY". Thanks for the question! Commented Sep 21, 2023 at 17:33
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The particle に here indicates a subject of possession, and it makes up the expression「(subject)に(object)がある」.

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