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Indeterminate rights

January 28, 2010 6 comments

For a class covering some recent moral philosophy, I just finished reading Onora O’Neill’s Towards Justice and Virtue: A Constructive Account of Practical Reasoning—a good book, not stunning, but clear and provocative. There was one argument in particular that I was surprised to find rather compelling: with respect to the structure of ethical principles, we should give priority to principles of obligation rather than to principles of rights.

On the whole, I find the polemic against rights-talk that’s gotten so popular over the past few decades to be really annoying. I don’t buy that it encourages individualism, or casts everyone as victims, or underdetermines moral action in some disastrous way (on the contrary, its indeterminacy is its strength). But O’Neill’s argument was of a different kind, I think. The issue wasn’t that rights-talk was inherently defective in any way, and certainly not that it hid the kernel of some insidious late-medieval ideology of individualism. The issue was rather the scope of moral concern. We can use the language of rights when we’re talking about goods owed to certain people. This is the domain where rights and obligations coincide: whenever someone has a determinate right to claim something from me, I have a corresponding obligation to provide it. O’Neill calls these “perfect obligations.” But there are also goods required of us that are not owed to anyone in particular. For O’Neill, this is the domain of the virtues: kindness, honesty, compassion, sympathy, etc., are in one way another obligations (for reasons she tries to identify), but nobody has any right to them. The problem with rights-talk is just that it has no way of speaking of these latter, “imperfect” obligations–which is part of the reason that people focused on universal human rights have frequently had to dismiss the virtues as relevant to moral consideration.

I find this pretty convincing. My one problem is that O’Neill seems to think this renders rights-talk unnecessary, except maybe when they work better politically (they have more “charm,” she says). But that underestimates the intrinsic power of the indeterminacy of certain appeals to human rights. Appeals to practically non-existent rights—Haitians’ right to clean water or food, the right to shelter for the homeless, dissidents’ right to free assembly, etc.—imposes no determinate obligation on any determinate agent, but nonetheless name something that is in fact owed to the set of people in question. If the virtues identify a set of goods required but not owed to anyone in particular, human rights identify a set of goods owed but not required of anyone in particular. The indeterminacy of rights-appeals therefore have the effect of implicating all capable agents in a kind of collective responsibility that has real moral force for the individual.

Posted by Brian Hamilton

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