The recent debate over the nature of rights has been dominated by two rival theories of rights. Proponents of the Will Theory of rights hold that individual freedom, autonomy, control, or sovereignty are somehow to be fundamental to the concept of a right, while proponents of the Interest Theory argue that rights rather protect people's welfare. Participants in this debate commonly assume the existence of a single ‘concept’ of which both theories provide competing descriptions. The aim of this article is (...) to show that both accounts are better understood as providing characterizations of different ‘kinds’ of rights. (shrink)
Non-consequentialist libertarianism usually revolves around the claim that there are only “negative,” not “positive,” rights. Libertarian nega- tive-rights theories are so patently problematic, though, that it seems that there is a more fundamental notion at work. Some libertarians think this basic idea is freedom or liberty; others, that it is self-ownership. Neither approach is satis- factory.
Nicholas Vrousalis has aimed to recast an old objection to the will theory of rights by focusing on Hillel Steiner’s version of that theory. He has argued that Will Theory must either be insensitive to the (values of the) lives of the unempowerable, or be incomplete, because it has no argumentative resources within its conceptual apparatus to ascribe or justify restrictions on the amount of discretion exercised by legal officials. I show that both charges are problematic. They rely on some (...) of Steiner’s inferences which are simply unjustified because they are based on misinterpretations of the logic of Hohfeld’s terminology. The problem for Vrousalis is that his critique takes for granted some of these flawed arguments. The critique is also misdirected to the extent that it assumes that the problems with Steiner’s theory affect Will Theory in general. (shrink)
Until recently, few people would have doubted that the idea of distributive justice is old, indeed ancient. Several authors have now challenged this assumption. Most prominently, Samuel Fleischacker argued that distributive justice originates in the eighteenth century. If accurate, this would upset much of what we have taken for granted about an important part of the history of Western political thought. However, the thesis is manifestly flawed; and since it has already proven influential, it is important to set the record (...) straight. We will focus on the principle of extreme necessity, developed in twelfth- and thirteenth-century canon law, and subsequently adopted in civil law. Despite its immense importance for the history of political thought, the principle is barely known, and much less discussed. We briefly characterize the main tenets of the principle and show that it meets all the criteria to count as a principle of distributive justice. (shrink)
Contemporary scholars writing on sovereignty can be roughly divided between those who believe that we should get rid of the concept (because it is inherently confusing, or essentially contested) and those who grant many of the criticisms of the first group, but add that we nevertheless cannot do without the concept, since much of our thinking about politics in general, and the state in particular, seems to be structured by this notion. I hope to demonstrate that much of the confusion (...) surrounding the notion is due precisely to fact that sovereignty is an inherently religious concept. (shrink)
G. E. Morton’s attempt to defend libertarianism against my claim that it relies on an implausible secularization of ideas of divine sovereignty fails. It is not true that morality itself entails human sovereignty, as witnessed by the moral theories of theological voluntarists and of consequentialists. Nor is it true that sovereignty can be conceptually transferred from God to equal human individuals, since they would have no legitimate way to legislate over each other short of a unanimous “general will.” Nor, finally, (...) does the idea of first possession rescue libertarian philosophy, since it is as applicable to animals and children as to adult human beings. (shrink)
: Many people have lamented the proliferation of human rights claims. The cure for this problem, it may be thought, would be to develop a theory that can distinguish ‘real’ from ‘supposed’ human rights. I argue, however, that the proliferation of human rights mirrors a deep problem in human rights theory itself. Contemporary theories of natural rights to welfare are historical descendants from a theory of rights to subsistence which was developed in twelfth-century Europe. According to this theory, each human (...) being has a special role to fulfil in God's plan and therefore has inalienable rights to subsist. Later theories have secularized this idea by claiming that human beings are purposive agents. Secularization, however, comes at a price. In the case of these theories, the price is a failure to provide satisfactory answers to the most basic questions we would expect of a theory of natural rights to answer. They have failed to provide a basis for ascribing these rights to all and only to human beings. They have not been able to generate a clear and viable criterion for ascribing duties correlative to these rights. And they cannot limit rights-claims in a non-arbitrary way. Hence we should abandon these theories. (shrink)
The debate between the 'Will Theory' and the 'Interest Theory' of rights is actually a debate over stipulative definitions. I argue how this could have happened, and suggest how we might proceed building a theory of rights.
In the first part of the paper, van Duffel argues, persuasively, why rights cannot be based (as some libertarians have tried to base them) on the notion of freedom. These arguments are not original; Friedman2 and Cohen3, among others, have articulated them at length. The obvious problem is that rights, while they enhance the freedom of their holders, restrict the freedom of others. Thus, if I own an automobile, then my freedom is arguably increased by the unrestricted use my property (...) right in that automobile confers, and anyone who deprived me of it would eliminate that freedom. But it is just as obvious that if I have exclusive use of that automobile, and the exclusive power to grant or withhold permission for others to use it, then others are not free to use it. Their freedom is is thus restricted at the same time, and by the same concept, that enhances mine. (shrink)
ABSTRACT G. E. Morton tries to defend libertarianism against my claim that it relies on an implausible secularization of ideas of divine sovereignty. But it is not true, as he claims, that morality itself entails human sovereignty: witness the moral theories of divine‐command theorists and philosophical consequentialists. Nor is it true that sovereignty can be conceptually transferred from God to equal human individuals, since they would have no legitimate way to legislate over each other, short of a unanimous “general will.” (...) Nor, finally, does the idea of first possession rescue private property rights, since it is as applicable to animals and children as to adult human beings. (shrink)
TO assert that one should come to terms with the past if one wants to understand the present would be to underline the obvious. And yet, even though we know much more of the history of natural rights theories now, especially of the origin of these theories before the seventeenth century, than we did, say, twenty years ago, this increase in knowledge seems to have had little impact on contemporary philosophical discussions about the nature of rights. Sometimes it seems that (...) philosophers, especially the more analytically minded ones, regard the history of ideas as a separate subject with little or no relevance to their research. One of the reasons might be a tendency to regard conceptual analysis of rights as being relatively impartial between different theories in which these concepts might function. Even those who would allow for a close connection between a certain conception of the nature of rights and a theory of rights would ﬁnd it prudent to distinguish more or less sharply between the question of what it means to have a right on the one hand, and the question which rights we have on the other hand. I would like to suggest that concepts of rights are the concepts of a theory and that we need to understand the theories from which they have emerged in order to fully understand contemporary rights language. One way of making this claim plausible would be to focus on an issue that has become central to contemporary debates about rights, that is, the conception of the rights-holder as a sovereign individual. I believe that our notion of individual sovereignty wavers between two quite different conceptions of sovereignty. The difference between the two will become obvious if we consider the relation between moral rights and more general moral obligations that people might have. I will then draw attention to a recent account of the history of natural rights theories. The point of doing so is this: if the account is true, then we have to acknowledge that ‘our’ ideas of natural rights (and especially of the sovereignty that people are supposed to possess according to these theories) have.... (shrink)