How important?

Class notes for 27 February

Main points

In the last two sessions, we have taken aim at these questions:

  1. What’s distinctive about rights? What do rights add to, say, duties? (We’re especially interested in what is involved in having a claim right beyond being the beneficiary of a duty; why aren’t rights redundant with duties, in other words?)
  2. Why are rights important? Is what rights add essential or important?

Feinberg’s answers are “claiming” and “respect”, respectively.

Buchanan is less enthusiastic. What’s distinctive about rights is valuable on the grounds of efficiency, not dignity or respect.

What are we going to do with this?

I’m going to try to show that it’s a good idea to keep those two questions separate.

What’s distinctive about rights may not be so important, and vice versa. For instance, I don’t think that the right against torture adds much to the duty not to torture. But it’s still very important.

I also think that the “manifesto” right is underrated. If you think that the only way rights can be important is by flagging duties, then you’ll find manifesto rights disappointing. But if you’re interested in, say, social policy, the existence of manifesto rights might be much more interesting than the existence of claim rights. Or so say I.

David’s point

David made a pretty good point that it took me several days to figure out. Here it is.

The project of figuring out what is distinctive about rights involves the following steps.

  1. Make a list of features that rights have.
  2. For each item on the list, ask if something similar could be accomplished with, say, duties.
  3. If the answer is “yes,” that isn’t a distinctive feature of rights.
  4. In addition, the importance of the feature can’t be used to argue that rights are important.

David granted steps 1-3. But he argued that 4 doesn’t follow.

From the fact that we don’t need to incorporate a particular feature in rights as opposed to duties, it doesn’t follow that this feature is irrelevant to the importance of rights. After all, rights as they are recognized in our culture do have the relevant features. Their job is not performed by duties.

So you could still explain the importance of rights as we know them by referring to features of rights that are not necessarily distinctive.

I think that’s a darn good point. It just goes to show that what counts as an answer depends on the question. If you want to know what’s distinctive about rights, that’s one thing. If you want to know whether rights are important, that’s another.