Moral rights: Conflicts and valid claims

Philosophical Studies 54 (1):63 - 86 (1988)
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Most of us have certain intuitions about moral rights, at least partially captured by the ideas that: (A) rights carry special weight in moral argument; (B) persons retain their rights even when they are legitimately infringed; although (C) rights undoubtedly do conflict with one another, and are sometimes overridden as well by nonrights considerations. I show that Dworkin's remarks about rights allow us to affirm (A), (B), and (C), yet those remarks are extremely vague. I then argue that Feinberg's more comprehensive and precise theory, designed to do justice to all three theses, cannot assure us of (A), that rights are not merely one consideration to be weighed in the balance with heterogeneous others. I show how Feinberg accepts (C) despite being drawn toward an alternative absolutist theory of rights and commits himself to (B) through his rejection of prima facie rights. But his promising distinction between recognition and enforcement of a right, which helps give some sense to (B) despite its tension with (C), undermines the force of rights in moral argument apparently intended by (A). We thus learn that Feinberg's and Dworkin's accounts of rights are incompatible, though each is correct in important ways. Contrasting their views allows us to clarify the implications and consistency of alternative theses about rights, one step toward meeting the challenge of developing a theory which shows more adequately how respect for rights is to be combined with other intuitions about rights and their relation to other values.



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Judith W. DeCew
Clark University

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