Cranston vs. Shue

Class notes for 1 November


Maurice Cranston complains that the addition of social and economic rights to what he characterizes as the traditional civil and political rights is subject to both political and philosophical objections. The former objection is that social and economic rights dilute the force of the traditional ones. The latter is that social and economic rights do not make any sense.

The political objection could be true even if the philosophical objection fails. Then we would be faced with an interesting question about what to do: should we sacrifice some genuine human rights in order to preserve others?

Here is Cranston’s list of civil and political rights (from p. 46)

traditional list, rights to: life, liberty, property, equality, justice, the pursuit of happiness.

instantiated in UDHR as rights to: free movement, property, marriage, equality before the law, privacy, religious freedom, free speech, freedom of assembly, asylum; prohibitions against slavery, torture, arbitrary detention.

By contrast, the social and economic rights in the UDHR include:

Rights to: take part in government, education, work, form trade unions, equal pay for equal work, standard of living adequate to ensure health and well-being of one’s family, social security against contingencies of life (unemployment, illness, old age), enjoy the arts, participate in the benefits of scientific advancement, rest, leisure, periodic holidays with pay.

Cranston proposes three criteria for determining whether a putative right is a genuine human right. Of these, the most serious concerns the alleged lack of resources to comply with the duties corresponding to social and economic rights and the alleged simplicity of meeting the civil and political rights by prohibiting government interference.

We asked whether all of the rights on the civil and political list could be met simply by limiting government interference. As Emily pointed out, the state typically has to do something in order to protect rights. No police, no property. That’s not a logical necessity, but it is a practical one.

Finally, I said that Cranston’s argument relies on taking for granted what appears to be an artificial limit on who might bear duties. Why limit those who bear the duties corresponding to a putative human right to the members of the right bearer’s society? We don’t have a similar restriction in the case of, say, the right against being tortured.

Questions about global duties

Of course, abandoning what appears to be an artificial limit on duties hardly shows that the duties corresponding to social and economic rights can be met by the world as a whole. There are deep and confusing problems here and I’m going to wander a bit through some of them.

It’s easy to point out that the world has enough resources to meet all basic needs: there are oceans of food, piles of money, etc. But it’s less easy to imagine how to get to the political and social institutions that could distribute all of this stuff from where it sits to where it is needed in a sustainable and responsible way. Can a democratic state devote itself to serving the interests of non-citizens on a sustainable basis or would voters throw the self-sacrificing government out when the economy went bad? Even if such a government could stay in office, can the citizens of one state be trusted to dominate the economic life of another society (as they would if they basically provided food, health care, or the like) in a responsible way?

Ah, there should be international political institutions, much like present-day states, but more inclusive. That would solve the problem. Perhaps. But they don’t exist and some of those problems would pop up again when we tried to bring them into existence: can a democratic society surrender power to international institutions and would it do so responsibly? Isn’t that what is happening now in Europe? Perhaps. As the journalists say, time will tell.

In any event, it is hard to believe that there are permanent, natural barriers to meeting all human needs. The problems are social and political, that is, the result of artificial structures made by human beings. But it isn’t obvious to me that this means they are significantly easier to solve. Nature is fairly easy to tame. People are significantly more wily.


Shue’s conception of basic rights is designed to address each apparent flaw with Cranston’s position:

  1. It takes international duties seriously (it’s explicitly about priorities for US foreign policy).
  2. It holds that an important subset of the rights on each list (security rights = subset of civil-political list, subsistence rights = subset of social-economic list) are justified for the same reasons (thus denying that the ones on the first list make sense while those on the second don’t).
  3. It holds that all basic rights have both positive and negative corresponding duties (thus calling the significance of that distinction into question).