Feinberg on rights Notes for April 2

Main points

Feinberg begins with the same question Hart does: what is distinctive about rights.

His answer is that rights involve claims and claiming. Only a person with rights can make claims in the performative sense. That means that only a person with rights can make certain things happen by claiming them. Claiming, in the performative sense, makes things happen much as saying “I do” in a wedding ceremony does: it makes the person who said it married.

He extends his answer to show what is important about rights. The ability to make claims, Feinberg argues, is necessary for self-respect.

Claiming and criticizing

I said that Feinberg didn’t prove his point about the importance of rights. People without rights, such as the citizens of Nowheresville, could still do something I called criticizing. I said that the ability to criticize is good enough for having self-respect. Therefore, having rights is not necessary for having self-respect.

We kicked this around for most of the session. After class, two members gave wonderfully succinct summaries of the contending sides.

Jonathan said that I had to be wrong because people who lack rights can’t think of anything as their own, belonging to them, or owed to them. What is self-respect like if you can’t imagine anything being yours?

Charles said that I had to be right because claiming and criticizing are identical except for one very small difference. Only a particular person can make a claim, the one who has the right. But anyone can criticize, including the person whose interests are at stake. Other than that, claiming and criticizing can have exactly the same relationship to enforcement, dignity, and the rest. They’re supposed to be as close to one another as possible, after all.

But Jonathan’s point still sounds good to my ears, even though I’m on the other side.

This page was written by Michael Green for Philosophy of Law, Philosophy 34, Spring 2008. It was posted April 11, 2008.
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