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How to Talk About Rights - PowerPoint PPT Presentation

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How to Talk About Rights. What is a right?. “What people are entitled to have or do or receive.” -- John Mackie

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How to Talk About Rights

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What is a right?

  • “What people are entitled to have or do or receive.” -- John Mackie

  • “To have a right is to be in a position to claim, or to have claimed on one’s behalf, that something is due or owed, and the claim that is made is a claim made against somebody, to do or forebear what is claimed as due.” – Tom Regan

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Rights as Freedoms & Duties

“P has a right to X” only if:

1) P has the moral freedom (is not morally obligated not ) to have, do, or be X.

2) Others are obliged not to interfere with

P’s freedoms.

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Conventional Rights

Conventional Rights are rights that depend on human agreement.

Since Legal Rights are created through human agreement, legal rights are conventional rights.

All Legal Rights are Conventional, but not all Conventional Rights are Legal.

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Non-Conventional Rights?

  • Non-Conventional rights, if there are any, are based on features other than, or in addition to, human agreement.

  • Different thinkers claim different kinds of non-conventional rights: Regan, “moral,” Locke, “natural,” Jefferson, “unalienable,” Lafayette, “human.”

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“Natural Rights”

In place of the theory of the Divine Right of Kings, John Locke proposed a theory of Natural Rights.


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The Divine Right of Kings

This right is bestowed by a deity who ordains some as being fit to rule. The Chinese called their emperor “the son of heaven.”

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“Is it the case that Yao gave the Empire to Shun?” said Wan Chang.

“No. The emperor cannot give the Empire to another.”

“In that case, when Shun possessed the Empire, who gave it to him?”

“Heaven gave it to him.”

“When Heaven gave it to him, did it decree it in so many words?”

“No. Heaven does not speak, it simply reveals through deeds and affairs.”

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“Natural Rights”

Locke holds that each man has a “...Right…to his Natural Freedom, without being subject to the Will or Authority of any other Man.”

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Legal Rights: The 15th & the 19th Amendments

  • The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude

    -- Passed: February 26, 1869; Ratified: February 3, 1870.

  • The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex..

    -- Passed: June 4, 1919; Ratified: August 18, 1920

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Moral Verses Legal Rights

Tom Regan: “The concept of moral rights differs in important ways from that of legal rights… moral rights, if there are any, are universal... An individual’s race, sex, religion, place of birth, or country of domicile are not relevant characteristics for the possession of moral rights.”

The Case for Animal Rights, p. 267

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The Bearers of Moral Rights

Race, sex, religion, place of origin, and nationality are all irrelevant to Moral Rights.

Conscious Subjects or Patients

Persons or Agents

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Conventional & Legal Rights








The right to raid Alt’s refrigerator

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Bearers of Rights?

Citizens: Legal


Other Creatures?

Non Human Mammals:

Moral Rights?

Humans: Natural or Human Rights?

Persons: Conventional Rights

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Jeremy Bentham: “Anarchical Fallacies”

  • Bentham argued that the very idea of a non-legal right was “nonsense upon stilts.”

  • He attacked the assumption that: “…there are rights anterior to the establishment of governments: for natural, as applied to rights, if it means anything, is meant to stand in opposition to legal…”

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Inherent Dignity and Human Rights

  • “The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights” speaks of “the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.”

  • Article 1: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a sprit of brotherhood.”

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Regan: Inherent Value and Animal Rights

  • Regan calls creatures that have beliefs, desires, perceptions, and a sense of the future “subjects of a life.”

  • There are two types of subjects of a life:

    1) Moral Patients that are not agents, and

    2) Moral Patients that are agents, namely: human agents.

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Human Agents or Persons

Human Agents

Moral Patients


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Regan’s Case for Animal Rights.

  • Regan thinks animals that are conscious patients have “INHERENT VALUE.”

  • He claims that if something has “inherent value,” we have a “direct duty” to insure that this value is respected. He says, “It is not ‘the sentimental interests’ of moral agents that grounds our duties of justice to children, the retarded, the senile, or other moral patients, including animals. It is respect for their inherent value.”

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Moral Patients

  • Regan thinks some subjects of a life are pure patients. That is, they are not agents in the way that people are. Yet they do deserve moral concern from people. He calls them “moral patients” and includes in their ranks, infants, the senile, and some animals.

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Regan’s argument

  • Some subjects of a life have “inherent value.”

  • All things with “inherent value” morally require our respect.

  • Therefore, some subjects of a life morally require our respect.

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The argument is valid, but is it sound?

  • Neither premise 1. nor premise 2. is true.

  • To say something has inherent value is like saying that it is a circular square.

  • To borrow a phrase from Bentham, the idea of “intrinsic value” is nonsense upon stilts.

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The Meaning of “inherent”

  • An “inherent” property is one that is woven into the very nature of a thing.

  • So an inherent property is an intrinsic property.

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  • An intrinsic property of something is a property the thing has: a) no matter what anyone believes or wants,

    b) no matter what else is true.

  • Mass, for example, is intrinsic to matter.

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  • Dignity is not a property of a rights bearing individual in the way that mass is a property of a human being. Humans have mass no matter what anyone believes or wants; and no matter what else is true. But whether or not a thing has dignity depends on what people believe about it, want in regard to it, and what is true of it.

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So: Dignity is not inherent

  • To have dignity is to be worthy of being singled out for praise. But what makes a thing worthy? What dignifies it? Things have worth because people attribute worth to them, and they have dignity because people dignify them. So dignity is not a property intrinsic to anything. Dignity is invented, not discovered.

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Value is Invented not Discovered

  • 1. “I value X” does not entail

  • 2. “X is valuable.”

    For 2. is ambiguous between:

    2 a) “X can be valued” which is trivial, and

    2 b) “X is worthy of being valued” which is clearly not entailed by 1.

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So, how should we talk about rights?

Conventional Non-Conventional

Natural or Human? Moral, etc.

Legal, Professional, etc.



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Do I Have the Right?

Human, Natural, Moral?

Professional or Legal?




Can it be created?

Can it be enforced?


How do you know?

Is it being enforced?