O'Neill and Shue

Class notes for 8 November

Main points

O’Neill claims that there is a condition that all genuine rights must meet and that welfare rights, which include what Shue called subsistence rights, do not meet this condition. Liberty rights, that is, claim-rights with negative corresponding duties, to be strict about it, do meet the conditions.

Why do welfare rights fail those conditions? O’Neill didn’t provide a lot of detail. But Wellman’s arguments do seem to express the sort of thing that she may well have had in mind.

Shue denies that there is an interesting difference between subsistence and security rights since the positive duties corresponding to security rights face the same problems as the positive duties corresponding to subsistence rights.

Piotr’s challenge

O’Neill’s response to Shue turns on distinguishing features that she holds to be essential for rights, namely, claimability and waivability, from those that seem to her to involve something else, namely, enforcement.

As Piotr noted, a lot turns on “claimability.” What is necessary for a right to be “claimable”?

O’Neill’s contention is that a right is claimable only if there is a determinate person to whom one might address one’s claims. But that isn’t obviously so. Why can’t I address a claim to a lot of people, meaning that at least some of them have to respond to my plight?

The author we have read who said the most about claiming was Feinberg. Does his article supply the answer to Piotr’s challenge?

We can ask a similar question about “waivability.” Here, I pulled out an example I’ve given multiple times during the term: the right against being tortured. Must it be waivable in order to constitute a genuine right?

Rights and what is important

Finally, I said that I could imagine circumstances in which it would be more important to identify the mere manifesto rights (the things that are not genuine rights, by O’Neill’s lights) than it is to identify claim rights (which O’Neill regards as genuine rights, with determinate correlative obligations).

Here’s one way of thinking about where we have wound up in our discussion of the relationship between rights and duties and, specifically, in noting the different conceptions of rights underlying O’Neill’s and Shue’s positions.

Rights are thought to have two different kinds of characteristics:

  1. They are supremely important, among the most important considerations that those making political decisions must take into account.
  2. They have certain logical features. Most importantly, they entail specific duties that, when violated, identify those who have wronged the right holder (so that compensation may be given, e.g.).

One thing that I think we have discovered is that these two things do not always go together. In particular, some supremely important things do not meet the logical requirements of rights.