Feinberg on Rights Class notes for 27-29 March

Main points

Feinberg tries to answer two questions about rights:

  1. What is distinctive about them?
  2. Why are they important?

Claiming is central to his answers. Rights are distinctive because they give us the ability to make claims. He uses the example of Nowheresville to make this point. He also maintains that the ability to make claims is essential for self-respect.

Claiming and self-respect

We were split over whether claiming is essential for self-respect.

Minsoo, Michael, and I argued that there are other ways to stand up for yourself than by making a claim. Our examples were physical violence and criticizing. Physical violence is pretty straightforward. Criticizing is trickier. Claiming, as Feinberg defines it, is something that only a person with a right can do. But anyone can criticize bad behavior. And there’s nothing wrong, as far as I can see, with being especially prone to criticize when bad behavior effects me. So why isn’t that sticking up for myself?

Alex disagreed. He said that people in Nowheresville can’t stick up for themselves because they don’t have any idea of what is theirs. They can only object to violations of the rules. They can’t take the special offense that we do when we think we’re the victims of violations. It’s one thing to say “Stop, thief!” and another to say “Stop, thief, that’s mine!” Alex is right to say the latter is missing in Nowheresville. Is he also right to say that it is essential for self-respect? Perhaps he is. I report, you decide.

Claiming and rights

Is the ability to make claims essential to childrens’ rights or rights against torture?

There are ways of incorporating claiming into both, but I don’t think much would be lost if we did not. If I’m right about that, claiming is not essential to all rights, though it could be essential to some of them.

Finally, I said that it seemed to me that manifesto rights are more important than claim rights for many purposes. This is so even though manifesto rights don’t have corresponding duties and, apparently, valid claims.

This page was written by Michael Green for Philosophy of Law, Philosophy 34, Spring 2007.
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