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What's So Special about Rights?

  • Allen Buchanan (a1)

Future historians of moral and political philosophy may well label our period the Age of Rights. In moral philosophy it is now widely assumed that the two most plausible types of normative theories are Utilitarianism and Kantian theories and that the contest between them must be decided in the end by seeing whether Utilitarianism can accommodate a prominent role for rights in morality. In political philosophy even the most bitter opponents in the perennial debate over conflicts between liberty and equality often share a common assumption: that the issue of liberty versus equality can only be resolved (or dissolved) by determining which is the correct theory of rights. Some contend that equal respect for persons requires enforcement of moral rights to goods and services required for the pursuit of one's own conception of the good, while others protest that an enforced system of ‘positive’ rights violates the right to liberty whose recognition is the essence of equal respect for persons. The dominant views in contemporary moral and political philosophy combine an almost unbounded enthusiasm for the concept of rights with seemingly incessant disagreement about what our rights are and which rights are most basic. Unfortunately, that which enjoys our greatest enthusiasm is often that about which we are least critical.

My aim in this essay is to take a step backward in order to examine the assumption that frames the most important debates in contemporary moral and political philosophy – the assumption that the concept of a right has certain unique features which make rights so especially valuable as to be virtually indispensable elements of any acceptable social order.

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1 Buchanan A., Marx and Justice: The Radical Critique of Liberalism (Totowa, New Jersey; Rowman and Littlefield 1982), pp. 5085.

2 ibid., pp. 162–179. See also, Buchanan A., “Marx on Democracy and the Obsolescence of Rights,” South African Journal of Philosophy, Marx Centenary Issue, forthcoming.

3 Dworkin R., Taking Rights Seriously (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977), pp. 184205.

4 Coleman J., “Moral Theories of Torts: Their Scope and Limits: Part II,” Law and Philosophy (1983), 2, p. 22.

5 See for example, Thompson J. J., “Rights and Compensation, 1980,” 14 Nous pp. 315.

6 Benditt T., Rights; (Totowa, New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 1982), pp. 5364, and Coleman J., “Moral Theories of Torts: Their Scope and Limits: Part II,” pp. 1920.

7 See, for example, Gauthier D., “Unequal Need: A Problem of Equity in Access to Health Care”; Daniels N., “Am I My Parents’ Keeper”, and Daniels N., “Equity of Access to Health Care,” all in Securing Access to Health Care, Volume Two: Appendices, Sociocultural and Philosophical Studies Report of the President's Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research, Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 1983.

8 For an elaboration and defense of the view that problems of collective action provide sound, non-rights-based arguments for enforced principles requiring contributions see Buchanan A., “The Right to a ‘Decent Minimum’ of Health Care,” forthcoming in Philosophy & Public Affairs.

9 Wasserstrom R., “Rights, Human Rights, and Racial Discrimination, in Rights, edited by Lyons D. (Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1979), p. 56.

10 ibid., p. 57.

11 Feinberg J., “The Nature and Value of Rights,” in Rights, ed. Lyons D.; (Belmont, California; Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1979), p. 87.

12 Feinberg J., “The Rights of Animals and Unborn Generations,” in Rights, Justice and the Bounds of Liberty (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980), pp. 165167.

13 ibid., pp. 156–158.

14 Benditt T., Rights, pp. 4550.

15 ibid., p. 47.

16 I am grateful to Holly Smith for her comments on the issue of what is distinctively valuable about compensation and to Loren Lomasky for helping me to clarify my conclusions in this essay. I am also indebted to Deborah Mathieu for correcting several important errors in an earlier draft, especially in the discussion of the idea that what one has as a matter of right is owed to one.

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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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