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Rights to Compensation

  • Onora O'Neill (a1)

Rights to compensation are much invoked and much disputed in recent liberal debates. The disputes are generally about supposed fundamental (natural, human or moral) rights to compensation, whose recognition and legal enactment would transform some lives. For example, special treatment in education or employment are claimed as compensation for past denials of equal opportunity; special consideration for Third World countries in aid and trade terms is claimed as compensation for the injustices of the colonial past.

We can make ready sense of the idea of legal rights to compensation. Legal rights to compensation guarantee (some) recompense for damage suffered. The damage for which compensation is given may or may not be produced by wrongdoing; it may also be negligent or accidental or due to natural causes. In law, compensation is not always contingent upon the victim having suffered injury as well as harm, nor upon saddling a wrong-doer with the costs of compensation. Insurance policies standardly cover damage due to accident and neglect. Legal rights to compensation may provide for payments to victims of violent crime, to those whose property is requisitioned or damaged, to victims of libel or malpractice, and even to victims of natural disasters such as floods or earthquakes. Legal rights to compensation are a standard way of dealing with the predicament of those who become victims, whether of others' (criminal) action, of their own negligence, or of natural catastrophe.

None of this shows that there are fundamental rights to compensation. Legal rights to compensation may lack moral grounding: and if they are morally grounded, they may rest not on fundamental rights to compensation, but on background positions in which rights are derivative or inessential.

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Social Philosophy and Policy
  • ISSN: 0265-0525
  • EISSN: 1471-6437
  • URL: /core/journals/social-philosophy-and-policy
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