Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Rights and Entitlements

Libertarian conceptions of justice are built around the idea that there are certain things which we may not do to people, because as individuals and ends in themselves, they are not to be used against their will for the benefit of others. These ideas are usually represented through the notion of “rights” that individuals have. But while the concept of a “right” may seem simple, there are some difficulties in understanding exactly how they are supposed to function. Because we will be dealing extensively with issues involving rights, it seems important to pin down precisely what it means to have a right to something.

The simplest conception of rights argues that to have the right to something is to be entitled to it, so that its absence constitutes a rights-violation. But this immediately leads to difficulties. For example, as surely as I have a right to anything, I have the right not to have my leg chopped off. But if I chopped my own leg off, it would seem odd to say that my rights had been violated.

Perhaps, then, we would amend our conception of rights to say that to have a right to something is to be entitled to not being deprived of it by forces external to the holder of the right. But this too is problematic. It seems fair to say that just as clearly as I have the right to not have my leg chopped off, I have the right not to be killed. But if I fell ill with a deadly disease, it would seem absurd to say that the pathogens violated my rights.

Accordingly, we might respond that to have a right does not protect us against all external deprivations, but rather against being deprived of the object of our right by other moral agents. But again, we are faced with problems. Returning to the right not to be killed, we find that there are times where others would not act badly if they killed us. The most obvious example is self-defense. If I attack you with a knife, and the only way to stop me would be to take my life, it would surely be permissible for you to do so.

Further sharpening our conception of rights, we might therefore say that to have a right to something means to be entitled against deprivation of it by other moral agents, except when the right-holder has somehow “aggressed” against someone else. But once again, counterexamples present themselves. Joel Feinberg writes:
Suppose that you are on a backpacking trip in the high mountain country when an unanticipated blizzard strikes the area with such ferocity that your life is imperiled. Fortunately, you stumble upon an unoccupied cabin, locked and boarded up for the winter, clearly somebody else’s private property. You smash in a window, enter, and huddle in a corner for three days until the storm abates. During this period you help yourself to your unknown benefactor’s food supply and burn his wooden furniture in the fireplace to keep warm. Surely you are justified in doing all these things, and yet you have infringed the clear rights of another person.

I think that Feinberg is obviously right to say that you would be justified in doing this, even though the victim in this case would not be in any way responsible for your situation. It might be clear by now that what we seem to be working towards is the idea that to have a right to something is closest to being entitled not to be deprived of it by others in the absence of certain kinds of morally significant reasons for doing so.

This conclusion seems fitting when we recall that rights reflect the respect due to others in light of their individuality and inherent worth. Properly respecting someone does not mean that we must avoid infringing their rights at all costs. Rather, it means that we must take their rights into consideration very seriously, and only infringe upon them when doing so is necessary, and when doing so would show due respect to the victims of our actions.

6 comments:

Growing Freedom said...

What about conflicting rights? Your last paragraph seems to want this question...

And also: "to have a right to something is closest to being entitled not to be deprived of it by others in the absence of certain kinds of morally significant reasons for doing so"

Aren't the 'certain kinds of reasons' required for making this statement meaningful?

-Alex from Liberating Minds

Stewart said...

But what, exactly, does it mean to have a right? You started to touch on that issue, but then you moved onto an examination of what rights a person has. You wrote:

The simplest conception of rights argues that to have the right to something is to be entitled to it, so that its absence constitutes a rights-violation.

I think you have to do better than that in order for this to be persuasive. Since rights and entitlement are effectively synonymous, the above sentence has no real explanatory power. What does it mean to be entitled, obligated, etc.? What is a rights-violation? It seems that, in order to really say something about the subject, it has to be discussed without simply using other moral vocabulary.

The rest of the essay could be interesting, but it looks like you got there too early. You're implicitly relying on intuition as a method for validating moral propositions. If you're going to take that approach, then the argument would be more persuasive if it was explicitly addressed.

Danny Shahar said...

Thanks for the critiques! I forgot to point out that this is a part of the introductory section of my thesis on climate change, and I guess it doesn't do as well as I might have liked as a stand-alone article. To see where I was going with this, the next two paragraphs tentatively read like this:

The idea that we can be justified in infringing others’ rights can be captured in a bit of terminology which I will borrow from Judith Thomson. She writes:
"Suppose a man has a right that something or other shall be the case; let us say that he has a right that p, where p is some statement or other, and now suppose we make p false. So, for example, if his right is that he is not punched in the nose, we make that false, that is, we bring about that he is punched in the nose. Then, as I shall say, we infringe his right. But I shall say that we violate his right if and only if we do not merely infringe his right, but more, are acting wrongly, unjustly in doing so."

In looking for an appropriate libertarian response to climate change, this distinction will be critical. Most libertarians presume that we have a right to self-determination, such that we are generally entitled to do as we please. The most uncontroversially legitimate reason for infringing upon this right is that an individual has acted unjustly by violating the rights of others. Accordingly, our first task will be to establish whether climate change infringes any rights possessed by those who will be affected by its impacts. We will then discuss whether these infringements represent an injustice, or whether they represent permissible actions on the part of those contributing to climate change. Lastly, we will discuss whether there might be reasons for coercively interfering with individuals’ right to self-determination besides the violation of others’ rights.

Stewart said...

With respect to Judith Thomson, I don't think her wording expressed anything that yours did not, although she provides more detail. Ultimately you are both using moral vocabulary (e.g. "acting wrongly, unjustly") to describe what a right is. If a theory of rights depends on another method of knowing what is, for example, right or wrong, then it has no moral explanatory power by itself. That is, you can't say "Action X is wrong because it infringes on someone's rights", if you can only know that it infringes on their rights by previously determining that it is wrong/unjust.

Danny Shahar said...

Perhaps it would help to think of rights as identifying things that would be prima facie wrong. So it's not that rights do no work, it's just that to have a right does not always mean that someone would be wrong to infringe it.

pharmacy said...

Then, as I shall say, we infringe his right. But I shall say that we violate his right if and only if we do not merely infringe his right, but more, are acting wrongly, unjustly in doing so would be to take my life, it would surely be permissible for you to do so.

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