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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