Rights are entitlements (not) to perform certain actions, or (not) to be in certain states; or entitlements that others (not) perform certain actions or (not) be in certain states.
Rights dominate modern understandings of what actions are permissible and which institutions are just. Rights structure the form of governments, the content of laws, and the shape of morality as it is currently perceived. To accept a set of rights is to approve a distribution of freedom and authority, and so to endorse a certain view of what may, must, and must not be done.
- To have a right is to have a “valid claim.” (Feinberg 1970, 257)
- “In the strictest sense” all rights are claims. (Hohfeld 1919, 36)
- “A right, in the most important sense, is the conjunction of a [privilege] and a claim-right.” (Mackie 1979, 169)
- “Rights are permissions rather than requirements. Rights tell us what the bearer is at liberty to do.” (Louden 1983, 95)
- “No one ever has a right to do something; he only has a right that some one else shall do (or refrain from doing) something.” (Williams 1968, 125)
- “A right is an established way of acting.” (Martin 1993, 1)
- “A person who says to another ‘I have a right to do it’ is not saying that … it is not wrong to do it. He is claiming that the other has a duty not to interfere.” (Raz 1994, 275)
- “It is hard to think of rights except as capable of exercise.” (Hart 1982, 185)
- “A right is a power which a creature ought to possess.” (Plamenatz 1938, 82)
- “All rights are essentially property rights.” (Steiner 1994, 93)
- “Rights are themselves property, things we own.” (Feinberg 1973, 75)
In the jurisprudence and the law, a right is the legal or moral entitlement to do or refrain from doing something, or to obtain or refrain from obtaining an action, thing or recognition in civil society. Rights serve as rules of interaction between people, and, as such, they place constraints and obligations upon the actions of individuals or groups (for example, if one has a right to life, this means that others do not have the liberty to kill him).
Most modern conceptions of rights are universalist and egalitarian — in other words, equal rights are granted to all people. There are two main modern conceptions of rights: on the one hand, the idea of natural rights holds that there is a certain list of rights enshrined in nature that cannot be legitimately modified by any human power. On the other hand, the idea of legal rights holds that rights are human constructs, created by society, enforced by governments and subject to change.
By contrast, most pre-modern conceptions of rights were hierarchical, with different people being granted different rights, and some having more rights than others. For instance, the rights of a father to be respected by his son did not indicate a duty upon the father to return that respect, and the divine right of kings to hold absolute power over their subjects did not leave room for many rights to be granted to the subjects themselves. The concept of natural right developed in the School of Salamanca in the late 16th century, and first gained widespread acceptance nearly 200 years later, during the Age of Enlightenment.
It is not generally considered necessary that a right should be understood by the holder of that right; thus rights may be recognized on behalf of another, such as children's rights or the rights of people declared mentally incompetent to understand their rights. However, rights must be understood by someone in order to have legal existence, so the understanding of rights is a social prerequisite for the existence of rights. Therefore, educational opportunities within society have a close bearing upon the people's ability to erect adequate rights structures.
There are two fundamental controversies surrounding the notion of rights: First, there is the question of the basis for rights (on what basis rights can be said to exist). Second, there is the question of the content of rights (what the rights of a person actually are).
Categories of Rights
A right to life, a right to choose; a right to vote, to work, to strike; a right to one phone call, to dissolve parliament, to operate a forklift, to asylum, to equal treatment before the law, to feel proud of what one has done; a right to exist, to sentence an offender to death, to launch a nuclear first strike, to castle kingside, to a distinct genetic identity; a right to believe one's eyes, to pronounce the couple husband and wife, to be left alone, to go to hell in one's own way.
-We encounter assertions of rights as we encounter sounds: persistently and in great variety. Making sense of this profusion of assertions requires that we class rights together by common attributes. Rights-assertions can be categorized, for example, according to:
-Who is alleged to have the right: Children's rights, animal rights, workers' rights, states' rights, the rights of peoples.
-What actions or states or objects the asserted right pertains to: Rights of free expression, to pass judgment; rights of privacy, to remain silent; property rights, bodily rights.
-Why the rightholder (allegedly) has the right: Moral rights are grounded in moral reasons, legal rights derive from the laws of the society, customary rights exist by local convention.
-How the asserted right can be affected by the rightholder's actions: The inalienable right to life, the forfeitable right to liberty, and the waivable right that a promise be kept.
Many of these categories have sub-categories. For instance, natural rights are the sub-class of moral rights that humans have because of their nature. Or again, the rights of political speech are a subclass of the rights of free expression.
The study of particular rights is primarily an investigation into how such categories and sub-categories overlap. There has been much discussion, for example, of whether human rights are natural rights, whether the right to privacy is a legal right, and whether the legal right to life is a forfeitable right. (For the central jurisprudential debate over the relation between legal and moral rights, see legal positivism, natural law theories, and the nature of law.)
Types of Rights
Active and Passive Rights
The distinction between active and passive rights (Lyons 1970) maps neatly onto the Hohfeldian incidents. The privilege and the power are “active” rights that concern their holders' own actions. The claim and the immunity are “passive” rights that regulate the actions of others. Active rights are signaled by statements of the form “A has a right to φ”; while passive rights are signaled by statements of the form “A has a right that B φ” (in both of these formulas, “φ” is an active verb).
A naval captain has an active privilege-right to walk the decks and an active power-right to order that the ship set sail. A player in a chess tournament has a passive claim-right that his opponent not distract him, and a professor has a passive immunity-right that her university not fire her for publishing unpopular views.
Negative and Positive Rights
A distinction between negative and positive rights is popular among some normative theorists, especially those with a bent toward libertarianism. The holder of a negative right is entitled to non-interference, while the holder of a positive right is entitled to provision of some good or service. A right against assault is a classic example of a negative right, while a right to welfare assistance is a prototypical positive right (Narveson 2001).
Since both negative and positive rights are passive rights, some rights are neither negative nor positive. Privileges and powers cannot be negative rights; and privileges, powers, and immunities cannot be positive rights. The (privilege-) right to enter a building, and the (power-) right to enter into a binding agreement, are neither negative nor positive.
It is sometimes said that negative rights are easier to satisfy than positive rights. Negative rights can be respected simply by each person refraining from interfering with each other, while it may be difficult or even impossible to fulfill everyone's positive rights if the sum of people's claims outstrips the resources available.
However, when it comes to the enforcement of rights, this difference disappears. Funding a legal system that enforces citizens' negative rights against assault may require more resources than funding a welfare system that realizes citizens' positive rights to assistance. As Holmes and Sunstein (1999, 43) put it, in the context of citizens' rights to state enforcement, all rights are positive. Moreover, the point is often made that the moral urgency of securing positive rights may be just as great as the moral urgency of securing negative rights (Shue 1996). Whatever is the justificatory basis for ascribing rights—autonomy, need, or something else—there might be just as strong a moral case for fulfilling a person's right to adequate nutrition as there is for protecting that person's right not to be assaulted.
Rights can be divided into individual rights, which are held by individuals (or corporations) recognised by the legal system, and collective rights, which are held by an ensemble of people or a subgroup of people who have a certain characteristic in common. In some cases there can be an amount of tension between individual and collective rights. In other cases, the view of collective and individual rights held by one group can come into sharp and bitter conflict with the view of rights held by another group. For instance compare Manifest destiny with Trail of Tears.
With reference to the object of the right, a common general distinction is among:
Intellectual rights, which include: Civil rights Religious rights Rights of opinion Real rights (from the Latin word "res", thing), which include: Property rights Rights of use Liberties Personal rights, as a credit.
Functions of rights
The Will Theory and the Interest Theory
There are two main theories of the function of rights: the will theory and the interest theory. Each presents itself as capturing an ordinary understanding of what rights do for those who hold them. Which theory offers the better account of the functions of rights has been the subject of spirited dispute, literally for ages.
Will theorists maintain that a right makes the rightholder “a small scale sovereign.” (Hart 1982, 183) More specifically, a will theorist asserts that the function of a right is to give its holder control over another's duty. Your property right diagrammed in the figure above is a right because it contains a power to waive (or annul, or transfer) others' duties. You are the “sovereign” of your computer, in that you may permit others to touch it or not at your discretion. Similarly a promisee is “sovereign” over the action of the promisor: she has a right because she has the power to waive (or annul) the promisor's duty to keep the promise. In Hohfeldian terms, will theorists assert that every right includes a Hohfeldian power over a claim. In colloquial terms, will theorists believe that all rights confer control over others' duties to act in particular ways.
Interest theorists disagree. Interest theorists maintain that the function of a right is to further the right-holder's interests. An owner has a right, according to the interest theory, not because owners have choices, but because the ownership makes owners better off. A promisee has a right because promisees have some interest in the performance of the promise, or (alternatively) some interest in being able to form voluntary bonds with others. Rights, the interest theorist says, are the Hohfeldian incidents you have that are good for you.
The contest between will-based and interest-based theories of the function of rights has been waged for hundreds of years. Influential will theorists include Kant, Savigny, Hart, Kelsen, Wellman, and Steiner. Important interest theorists include Bentham, Ihering, Austin, Lyons, MacCormick, Raz, and Kramer. Each theory has stronger and weaker aspects as an account of what rights do for rightholders.
The will theory captures the powerful link between rights and normative control. To have a right is to have the ability to determine what others may and may not do, and so to exercise authority over a certain domain of affairs. The resonant connection between rights and authority (the authority to control what others may do) is for will theorists a matter of definition.
However, the will theory's account of the function of rights is unable to explain many rights that most think there are. Within the will theory there can be no such thing as an unwaivable right: a right over which its holder has no power. Yet intuitively it would appear that unwaivable rights are some of the most important rights that we have: consider, for example, the unwaivable right not to be enslaved. (MacCormick 1977, 197) Moreover, since the will theorist holds that all rights confer sovereignty, he cannot acknowledge rights in beings incapable of exercising sovereignty. Within the will theory it is impossible for incompetents like infants, animals, and comatose adults to have rights. Yet we ordinarily would not doubt that these incompetents can have rights, for example the right not to be tortured. (MacCormick 1982, 154–66) Will theories also have difficulties explaining privilege-rights, which are not rights of authority over others.
The interest theory is more capacious than the will theory. It can accept as rights both unwaivable rights (the possession of which may be good for their holders) and the rights of incompetents (who have interests that rights can protect). The interest theory also taps into the deeply plausible connection between holding rights and being better off.
However, the interest theory is also misaligned with any ordinary understanding of rights. We commonly accept that people can have interests in x without having a right to x; and contrariwise that people can have a right to x without having interests sufficient to explain this. In the first category are “third party beneficiaries.” (Lyons 1994, 36–46) You may have a powerful interest in the lottery paying out for your spouse's winning ticket, but you have no right that the lottery pays out to your spouse. In the second category are many of the rights of office-holders and role-bearers (Jones 1994, 31–32; Wenar 2008, 258–62). Whatever interest a judge may have in exercising her legal right to sentence a convict to life in prison, the judge's interests cannot possibly justify ascribing to her the power to make such a dramatic change in the convict's normative situation. Also in the second category are counter-examples such as Kamm's (2007, 245): “If I simply endow you with the right to some of my money, your interest in having the money or property in general played no role, let alone a sufficient role, in my now having a duty to give you my money.”
Will theorists and interest theorists have developed their positions with increasing technical sophistication. The issues that divide the two camps are clearly defined, and the debates between them are often intense. (Kramer, Simmonds, and Steiner 1998) The seemingly interminable debate between these two major theories has encouraged the development of alternative positions on the function of rights.
“Demand” theories fill out the idea that, as Feinberg (1973, 58–59) puts it, “A right is something a man can stand on, something that can be demanded or insisted upon without embarrassment or shame.” For Darwall (2006, 18), to have a claim-right, “includes a second-personal authority to resist, complain, remonstrate, and perhaps use coercive measures of other kinds, including, perhaps, to gain compensation if the right is violated.” On Skorupski's account (2010, XII.6, XIV.2–3) rights specify what the right-holder may demand of others, where “demand” implies the permissibility of compelling performance or exacting compensation for non-performance. Like the will theory, such accounts center on the agency of the right-holder. They do not turn on the right-holder's power over the duty of another, so they do not share the will theory's difficulty with unwaivable rights. They may, however, have more difficulty explaining power-rights. Demand theories also share the will-theory's challenges in explaining the rights of incompetents, and in explaining privilege-rights.
Other recent analyses of what rights do for rightholders attempt to combine the strengths of both of the leading theories. Sreenivasan (2005, 2010) puts forward a hybrid analysis of the claim-right that grafts the interest theory onto the will theory: here the function of the claim-right is to endow the right-holder with the amount of control over another's duty that advances her interests. Cruft (2004) suggests an inclusive analysis where all rights are “of value” in securing the right-holder's autonomy or interests. Wenar (2005) abandons the idea that all rights have any single function at all, describing instead several distinct functions that rights perform.
Intellectual historians have tangled over the origins of rights. These debates are sometimes framed in terms of when “the concept of a right” emerged. Yet insofar as it is really the emergence of the concept of a right that is at issue, the answer lies beyond the competence of the intellectual historian and within the domain of the anthropologist. Even the most primitive social order must include rules specifying that certain individuals or groups have special permission to perform certain actions. Moreover, even the most rudimentary human communities must have rules specifying that some are entitled to tell others what they must do. Such rules ascribe rights. The genesis of the concept of a right was simultaneous with reflective awareness of certain social norms.
The more productive characterization of the debate within intellectual history concerns when a word or phrase appeared that has a meaning close to the meaning of our modern word. This debate turns on when in history the pre-modern “objective” sense of “right” came also to bear our modern, “subjective” sense of “a right.”
“Right” in its older, objective sense means “what is just” or “what is fair.” (Finnis 1980, 206) Aristotle uses dikaion, for example, to indicate that a society is “rightly ordered”: that it displays the correct structure of human relationships “Right” in this objective sense can also be attributed to individuals. The Roman jurist Ulpian, for instance, held that justice means rendering each his right (ius). In this sense, a person's “right” is what is due to him given his role or status. This objective sense of “right” is not the same as our modern idea of “a right.” For instance, Ulpian noted that the ius of a parricide was to be sewn into a sack of snakes and tossed into the Tiber. (Tierney 1997, 16)
The scholarly inquiry into when our modern, subjective sense of “a right” became established as a meaning of some word or phrase has proved long and divisive. The ancient authors often used words imprecisely, and smeared their meanings across and beyond the Hohfeldian categories. The intellectual historians themselves have occasionally congested the discussion by taking different features of rights as definitive of the modern concept. Moreover, the scholarly debate has sometimes accepted over-optimistic assumptions about the sharpness of conceptual boundaries.
Nevertheless, two broad trends in the scholarly discussions are clear. The first is to push the origins of a term indicating a modern, subjective sense of “a right” back further into history: from Locke to Hobbes to Grotius in the seventeenth century, then to Gerson in the fifteenth century, Ockham in the fourteenth, perhaps even to Gratian in the twelfth (Brett 1997, Tierney 1997). The second and related trend has been to establish that terms referring to active rights (what we would call privilege-rights and power-rights) predate terms referring to passive rights (what we would call claim-rights and immunity-rights). It appears that the earliest debates using recognizably modern rights-language concerned topics such as whether the pope has a (power-) right to rule an earthly empire, and whether the poor have a (privilege-) right to take what they need from the surplus of the rich.
Most rights entitle their holders to freedom in some sense; indeed holding a right can entail that one is free in one or more of a variety of senses. In the most general terms, the active incidents—the privilege and the power—entitle their holders to freedom to act in certain ways. The passive incidents—the claim and the immunity—often entitle their holders to freedom from undesirable actions or states.
We can be more specific. A privilege-right makes it holder “free to” in the sense of non-forbiddenness. A government employee with a security clearance, for instance, has a privilege-right that makes him free to read classified documents. One can be free in this non-forbidden way without having the physical ability to do what one is free to do. You may be free to march in the parade, even when both your knees are sprained. The actions you are free to do in this sense may or may not be possible for you, but at least they are not disallowed.
Someone who has a pair of privilege rights—no duty to perform the action, no duty not to perform the action—is free in an additional sense of having discretion over whether to perform the action or not. You are free to tie your left shoe first, or not, as you like. This dual non-forbiddenness again does not imply physical ability. A rightholder may be allowed to perform or not perform some action, but this still does not mean that she is capable of performing the action that she is free to perform.
In contrast, the holder of a power-right does have an ability. This is the normative ability to exercise authority in a certain way. (Sumner 1987, 28) This normative ability confers freedom in a different sense. A judge is free to sentence a convicted criminal to prison. The judge is not merely allowed to sentence the prisoner: her power-right gives her the ability—that is, the authority—to do so. Her (power-) right makes her free to sentence in a way that non-judges are not free to sentence.
As for the passive rights, many claim-rights entitle their holders to be free from the physical interference or surveillance of others. Other claim-rights entitle their holders to be free from undesirable conditions like hunger or fear. Immunity-rights parallel claim-rights one level up. Immunity-rights make their holders free from the authority of others, and so entitle their holders to be free from conditions like tyranny or exploitation.
A legal system can be seen as a distribution of all of these varieties of freedom. Any legal system will set out rules specifying who is free to act in which ways, and who should be free from the unwanted actions of others. A developed legal system will also determine who has the authority (and so who is free) to interpret and enforce these rules.
More generally, a political constitution can be seen as a multi-leveled structure of rights that distributes authority over rules of conduct in a distinctive way. A democratic constitution, for example, may give voters the power to elect legislators, who have certain powers to enact laws, which the judiciary has certain powers to interpret, and the police have certain powers to enforce, leaving certain courses of conduct open as legal for citizens to pursue. The facts about who should be free to do what within any legal or political system, as well as the facts about who should be free from which actions and conditions, can be represented as a complex, layered structure of rights.
There are two leading philosophical approaches to explaining which fundamental rights of conduct there are, and why these rights should be respected. These two approaches are broadly identifiable as deontological and consequentialist. Status theories hold that human beings have attributes that make it fitting to ascribe certain rights to them, and make respect for these rights appropriate. Instrumental theories hold that respect for particular rights is a means for bringing about some optimal distribution of interests. Each approach has characteristic strengths and weaknesses; the long-running contest between them is ongoing.
Quinn (1993, 170) sketches a contemporary status theory this way:
A person is constituted by his body and his mind. They are parts or aspects of him. For that very reason, it is fitting that he have primary say over what may be done to them—not because such an arrangement best promotes overall human welfare, but because any arrangement that denied him that say would be a grave indignity. In giving him this authority, morality recognizes his existence as an individual with ends of his own—an independent being. Since that is what he is, he deserves this recognition.
Quinn claims that there is some attribute of the person—here, being “an individual with ends of his own”—that merits recognition from others. The recognition that is due to each individual can be accorded to that individual by respecting his fundamental rights.
Quinn contrasts his status approach to rights with one that ascribes rights “because such an arrangement best promotes overall human welfare.” His target is consequentialist theories of rights, the paradigm of which are utilitarian theories. We met such a utilitarian theory of rights above in John Stuart Mill's conceptualization of rights as “something which society ought to defend me in the possession of.” Mill believed that society ought to defend the individual in possession of her rights because doing so would bring about the greatest aggregate utility summed across the members of that society. For Mill, as for other instrumental theorists, rights are a tool for producing an optimal distribution of interests across some group.
The two approaches differ sharply over the role of consequences in the justification of ascribing rights. Status theorists hold that rights should be respected because it is fitting to do so, and not because of the good consequences that will flow from so doing. By contrast, within an instrumental theory good consequences are the justification for promulgating and enforcing rights. As Quinn (1993, 173) says about the status approach:
It is not that we think it fitting to ascribe rights because we think it is a good thing that rights be respected. Rather we think respect for rights a good thing precisely because we think people actually have them—and… that they have them because it is fitting that they should.
Within a status approach rights are not means for the promotion of good consequences. They are rather, in Nozick's phrase, side constraints on the pursuit of good consequences. (Nozick 1974, 29) A status approach frowns on any rights violation, even for the sake of maximizing the non-violation of rights overall (as in a “utilitarianism of rights”). Such an approach emphasizes the “agent-relative” reasons that each person has to avoid violating the rights of others.
A status-based justification thus begins with the nature of the rightholder and arrives immediately at the right. The instrumental approach starts with the desired consequences (like maximum utility) and works backward to see which rights-ascriptions will produce those consequences.
Status theories belong to the tradition of natural rights theories. All natural rights theories fix upon features that humans have by their nature, and which make respect for certain rights appropriate. The theories differ over precisely which attributes of humans give rise to rights, although non-religious theories tend to fix upon the same sorts of attributes described in more or less metaphysical or moralized terms: free will, rationality, autonomy, the ability to regulate one's life in accordance with one's chosen conception of the good life. Natural rights theorists agree that human reason can grasp the fact that it is appropriate to treat beings with such attributes in certain ways, although they disagree on whether such facts are self-evident.
Natural rights theory reached its high point in the early modern era, in the work of Grotius, Hobbes, Pufendorf, and especially Locke. Locke argued that men have rights to “life, liberty, and estate” in a pre-political state of nature, and that these natural rights put limits on the legitimate authority of the state. Locke's influence can be seen in the revolutionary American and French political documents of the eighteenth century, and especially in Jefferson's Declaration of Independence (1776): “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
The revival of status theory within contemporary philosophy began with Nozick's Anarchy State and Utopia (1974). While Nozick does acknowledge a debt to Locke's theory of property, his work belongs within the Kantian tradition of natural rights theorizing. Nozick centers his explanation of the moral force of individual rights on the Kantian imperative against treating humanity merely as a means to an end. Each person's rights impose side-constraints on the pursuit of others' goals, Nozick says, because each person possesses an inviolability that all others must respect. “Individuals have rights,” he wrote, “and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights).” (Nozick 1974, ix)
Many find this approach of grounding of rights in individual dignity appealing. There is a directness and clarity to status explanations of fundamental rights. For example, Kamm (2007, 247) explains the right of free expression as follows:
The right to speak may simply be the only appropriate way to treat people with minds of their own and the capacity to use means to express it... Not recognizing a person's option of speaking is to fail to respect him... To say that any given person is not entitled to the strong right to free speech is... a way of saying that certain crucial features of human nature are not sufficient to generate the right in anyone. And this seems to be a mistake.
Moreover, status-based rights are attractively robust. While the justifications of instrumental rights are always contingent on calculations concerning consequences, status-based rights are anchored firmly in individual dignity. This makes it easy to explain why status-based rights are strong, almost unqualified rights, and this is a position which many believe properly expresses the great value of each person.
However, the strength of status-based rights can also be seen as a weakness of the theory. One does not wish to be carried from the great importance of each individual to the implausible position that all fundamental rights are absolute. As Nagel (2002, 36) allows while defending a status view, “there are evils great enough so that one would be justified in murdering or torturing an innocent person to prevent them.” Consequences, if bad enough, do justify the qualification of individual rights, which leaves the status theorist needing to explain how a theory which rejects consequences so resolutely at the outset can concede their importance later on.
Moreover, the simplicity of the status approach to rights can also appear to be a liability. On close examination, the fundamental rights that most people believe in are intricately “shaped.” For example, consider the widely-accepted right to free expression. This right includes the right to make damning personal attacks on others. Yet the right is much more permissive about attacking public figures than it is about assailing private citizens. How could a status approach explain this distinction between public figures and private citizens? Or again: the right to free speech contains a right to say what the speaker knows to be untrue. Yet we tend to be more tolerant of deceitful speech in political campaigns than we are of deceitful speech in advertising or in the courtroom. It is an open question whether status theory has the conceptual resources to explain why individual rights should be shaped in these specific ways.
Status theory also faces the challenge of vindicating its foundations and its scope. Why after all is it “fitting” to ascribe individuals rights? The Kantian value of inviolability can look puzzling when presented independently of a metaphysical grounding. As Nagel (2002, 34) admits, “it has proven extremely difficult to account for such a basic, individualized value such that it becomes morally intelligible.” This is a quiet echo of Bentham's protest that the doctrine of natural rights “is from beginning to end so much flat assertion: it lays down as a fundamental and inviolable principle whatever is in dispute.” (Bentham 1796, 66)
Moreover, status theorists must also resolve an internal debate over exactly which rights should be thought to express an individual's inviolability. Nozick holds that status-based rights include rights to whatever property one has acquired, while other status theorists reject the libertarianism to which Nozick's position leads. The resolution of this debate has become more urgent, as a group of neo-Kantian and neo-Lockean “left libertarian” theorists have advanced the view that the status of individuals requires that each be accorded strong rights to self-ownership, and also initially equal shares of “world-ownership.” (Vallentyne and Steiner 2000, Otsuka 2003)
Instrumental theories describe rights as instruments for achieving an optimal distribution of interests. The archetypal instrumental theory is some form of two-level consequentialism, such as rule utilitarianism. Within such a theory rights are rules, the general observance of which will lead to an optimal distribution of interests. In rule utilitarianism the optimal distribution is the one that contains the greatest aggregate utility.
The most common objection to grounding rights in such a theory is that the resulting rights will be too flimsy. If rights are justified only insofar as they generate good consequences, it may seem that the theory will need to prune its rights, perhaps severely, whenever maximum utility lies elsewhere. Why should it not be a rule in a two-level system, for example, that one should frame an innocent man if this would prevent a major riot? Why should it not be a rule that one should “violate” the right of an innocent not to be killed if this would prevent the killings of two innocents elsewhere? While status-based rights can appear to be too strong, instrumental rights can appear to be too weak.
Weak rights are a problem for utilitarianism because its focus on maximization makes it indifferent to certain facts about how utility is distributed across individuals. However, utilitarianism is not the only kind of instrumental theory.
For example, a pure egalitarian theory will portray rights as instruments for achieving a more equal distribution of interests. A prioritarian theory will define an optimal distribution in a manner similar to egalitarianism, except that it will give extra weight to the interests of those worse off. Other instrumental theories characterize “optimal distribution” in other ways. (Sumner 1987, 171) Instrumental theories that do not define an optimal distribution in terms of maximization may face less pressure than utilitarianism from concerns about weak rights. (Scanlon 1977)
Instrumental theories differ over how they define what counts as an optimal distribution (maximization, equality, etc.). They also differ in how they measure individual interests. For instance, a utilitarian's metric for interests is utility, Sen works with a metric of capabilities, Dworkin with resources, and so on.
Whatever metric they use, all instrumental theorists will have to address longstanding questions about the commensurability and interpersonal comparison of interests. Since instrumental theorists work with overall evaluations of how well off individuals would be were certain rights ascribed, they must explain how distinct categories of interests (e.g., health, income, opportunities for self-expression, social recognition) trade off against one another. They must also explain why they believe that these interests are similar enough across persons that it makes sense to use the same scales of measurement for different persons. (Griffin 1989)
Status theories are subject to the objection that they lack the conceptual resources to explain why the rights we believe in are intricately “shaped” to accommodate the particularities of different contexts and different rightholders. Instrumental theories are vulnerable to the mirror-image objection. An instrumental theorist can appeal to any number of distinct interests, which are at stake for any number of differently-situated individuals, to explain why a certain right should be held only by certain persons or only in certain circumstances. The danger for such a theorist is that the wealth of normative resources at her command will permit the ascription of whatever rights she favors. The theorist begins with the rights that she wants to justify, then gives a “just so” story in terms of an optimal distribution of interests that leads to exactly those rights. (Tushnet 1984, Frey 1985) Moreover all instrumental justifications rely on empirical predictions concerning which ascriptions of rights would produce which consequences, and there will typically be enough slack in these empirical predictions for instrumental theorists to fudge their derivations in order to reach the desired rights.
Both status theories and instrumental theories of rights have held an enduring attraction. Because of this, many have been tempted to search for a hybrid approach that would combine what is plausible in each. (e.g., Sen, 1982)
A third approach to the justification of rights might be called “contractual.” Here rights are characterized neither as naturally fitting for independent beings, nor as tools to promote the best state of affairs. Rather, rights define principles that would be chosen by properly situated and motivated agents agreeing to the basic terms of their relations (e.g., principles chosen in Rawls's original position, or principles within Scanlon's contractualism that no one could reasonably reject). The fact that these principles would be agreed to under the specified conditions is their justification.
Rights define fundamental principles within these theories because of the close connection between rights and what the theories' agents have strong reason to want. So, for example, Rawls states that the role of the right of personal property “is to allow a sufficient material basis for a sense of personal independence and self-respect, both of which are essential for the development and exercise of the two moral powers.” (Rawls 1993, 298) And Scanlon says that reasonable individuals “have reason to insist... on basic rights, which give them important forms of protection and control over their own lives.” (Scanlon 2003, 4) This third, contractual approach to the justification of rights has received surprisingly little scholarly attention (Martin, 1985, Gilbert 2004).
Critiques of rights come in two forms. The first is an attack on the substance of doctrines that give rights a central place. These critiques allege that the content of such doctrines is, in one way or other, malformed or unjustified. Here we find, for example, the criticism that natural rights doctrines are “so much flat assertion,” and that utilitarian rights tend to be implausibly weak. The second form of critique attacks the language of rights itself. The objection here is that it is inappropriate or counterproductive to express at least some kinds of normative concerns in terms of rights. We should, according to the second form of critique, reduce or avoid “rights talk.”
Marx attacked the substance of the revolutionary eighteenth century American and French political documents that proclaimed the fundamental “rights of man”: liberty, equality, security, property, and the free exercise of religion. Marx objected that these alleged rights derive from a false conception of the human individual as unrelated to others, as having interests can be defined without reference to others, and as always potentially in conflict with others. The rights-bearing individual is an “isolated monad… withdrawn behind his private interests and whims and separated from the community.” (Marx 1844, 146)
The right of property, Marx asserted, exemplifies the isolating and anti-social character of these alleged rights of man. On the one hand, the right of property is the right to keep others at a distance: the legal equivalent of a barbed wire fence. On the other hand, the right of property allows an owner to transfer his resources at his own pleasure and for his own gain, without regard even for the desperate need for those resources elsewhere.
Similarly, Marx held that the much-celebrated individual right to liberty reinforces selfishness. Those who are ascribed the right to do what they wish so long as they do not hurt others will perpetuate a culture of egoistic obsession. As for equality, the achievement of equal rights in a liberal state merely distracts people from noticing that their equality is purely formal: a society with formally equal rights will continue to be divided by huge inequalities in economic and political power. Finally, these so-called “natural” rights are in fact not natural to humans at all. They are simply the defining elements of the rules of the modern mode of production, perfectly suited to fit each individual into the capitalist machine.
Communitarians (Taylor, Walzer, MacIntyre, Sandel) sound several of the same themes in their criticisms of contemporary liberal and libertarian theories. The communitarians object that humans are not, as such theories assume, “antecedently individuated.” Nozick's “state of nature” theorizing, for example, errs in presuming that individuals outside of a stable, state-governed social order will develop the autonomous capacities that make them deserving of rights. Nor should we attempt, as in Rawls's original position, to base an argument for rights on what individuals would choose in abstraction from their particular identities and community attachments. There is no way to establish a substantive political theory on what all rational agents want in the abstract. Rather, theorists should look at the particular social contexts in which real people live their lives, and to the meanings that specific goods carry within different cultures. This criticism continues by accusing liberal and libertarian theories of being falsely universalistic, in insisting that all societies should bend themselves to fit within a standard-sized cage of rights. Insofar as we should admit rights into our understanding of the world at all, communitarians say, we should see them as part of ongoing practices of social self-interpretation and negotiation— and so as rules that can vary significantly between cultures.
These kinds of criticisms have been discussed in detail (e.g., Gutmann 1985, Waldron 1987b, Mulhall and Swift 1992). Their validity turns on weighty issues in moral and political theory. What can be said here is that a common theme in most of these criticisms—that prominent rights doctrines are in some way excessively individualistic or “atomistic”—need not cut against any theory merely because it uses the language of rights. Ignatieff (2003, 67) errs, for example, when he charges that “rights language cannot be parsed or translated into a nonindividualistic, communitarian framework. It presumes moral individualism and is nonsensical outside that assumption.”
As we saw above, the language of rights is able to accommodate rightholders who are individuals as such, but also individuals considered as members of groups, as well as groups themselves, states, peoples, and so on. Indeed the non-individualistic potential of rights-language is more than a formal possibility. The doctrine of international human rights—the modern cousin of eighteenth century natural rights theory—ascribes several significant rights to groups. The international Convention against Genocide, for example, forbids actions intending to destroy any national, ethnic, racial or religious group; and both of the human rights Covenants ascribe to peoples the right to self-determination. Such examples show that the language of rights is not individualistic in its essence
Theories of rights
In the same way, following Babeuf, considered as one of the founder of communism during the French Revolution, he criticized the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen as a "bourgeois declaration" of the rights of the "egoistic individual", ultimately based on the "right to private property", which economism deduced from its own implicit "philosophy of the subject", which asserts the preeminence of an individual and universal subject over social relations. On the other hand, Marx also criticized Bentham's utilitarianism.
Alongside Freud and Nietzsche, Marx thus takes a place amongst the trio of 19th century philosophers who criticized this pre-eminence of the subject and its consciousness. Instead, Marx saw consciousness as political. According to Marx, the recognition of these individual rights was the result of the universal extension of market relations to all of society and to all of the world, first through the primitive accumulation of capital (including the first period of European colonialism) and then through the globalization of the capitalist sphere. Such individual rights were the symmetric of the "right for the labourer" to "freely" sell his labor force on the marketplace through juridical contracts, and worked in the same time as an ideological means to discompose the collective grouping of producers required by the industrial revolution: thus, in the same time that the Industrial Era requires masses to concentrate themselves in factories and in cities, the individualist, "bourgeois" ideology separated themselves as competing homo economicus.
Marx's critique of the ideology of the human rights thus departs from the counterrevolutionary critique by Edmund Burke, who dismissed the "rights of Man" in favour of the "rights of the individual": it is not grounded on an opposition to the Enlightenment's universalism and humanist project on behalf of the right of tradition, as in Burke's case, but rather on the claim that the ideology of economism and the ideology of the human rights are the reverse sides of the same coin. However, as Étienne Balibar puts it, "the accent put on those contradictions can not not ring out on the signification of "human rights", since these therefore appears both as the language in which exploitation masks itself and as the one in which the exploited' class struggle express itself: more than a truth or an illusion, it is therefore a stake".Das Kapital ironizes on the "pompous catalogue of the human rights" in comparison to the "modest Magna Charta of a day work limited by law":
But the communist revolution does not end with the negation of individual liberty and equality ("collectivism"), but with the "negation of the negation": "individual property" in the capitalist regime is in fact the "expropriation of the immediate producers." "Self-earned private property, that is based, so to say, on the fusing together of the isolated, independent laboring-individual with the conditions of his labor, is supplanted by capitalistic private property, which rests on exploitation of the nominally free labor of others, i.e., on wage-labor... The capitalist mode of appropriation, the result of the capitalist mode of production, produces capitalist private property. This is the first negation of individual private property, as founded on the labor of the proprietor. But capitalist production begets, with the inexorability of a law of Nature, its own negation. It is the negation of negation. This does not re-establish private property for the producer, but gives him individual property based on the acquisition of the capitalist era: i.e., on co-operation and the possession in common of the land and of the means of production
Biju P R,Assistant Professor in Political Science,Govt Brennen College ,Thalassery