The Primacy of Welfare Rights

Social Philosophy and Policy 1 (2):119 (1984)
This paper deals with three topics: types of rights, the development of the terminology of rights, and the question of the primacy of welfare rights. Because these topics are interrelated, my exposition does not observe rigid boundaries among them. There is no pretence at all that any of these subjects is fully covered here; nor is it proposed, except for one writer, to touch upon the contemporary literature on rights, as noteworthy as some of that literature is. In order to gain entrance into the field, on which the writing has grown to massive proportions, I shall begin with an interesting historical phenomenon, some of whose philosophical import I want to explore. I should say at the outset, however, that the general motivation of this paper is the problem of the significance of the language of “rights.” Does it really make a difference, for instance, to speak of the “rights of man” rather than the “common duties of humanity”? Does the term “rights” add anything of special significance or is its only significance rhetorical and ideological? Can we dispense with the language of rights and still say everything we need to say about our moral relations? I confess to a moderate skepticism about the necessity of the language of rights in the last analysis. At any rate, this paper is intended as a contribution, however small, to this problem. The historical phenomenon with which I am going to begin will enable us to bring into focus the issue of the meaning of “rights.”
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DOI 10.1017/S0265052500003927
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