Feinberg on rights Notes for March 24

Main points

Feinberg tries to answer to two questions:

  1. What is distinctive about rights? Answer: they give us the ability to make claims, in the performative sense.
  2. What is the value of rights? Answer: the ability to make claims is necessary for dignity and self-respect.

Feinberg argues for those two points by imagining a place that lacks rights: Nowheresville. We spent March 24 going over the description of Nowheresville in order to isolate just what Feinberg thinks is missing there. That’s important because the missing element is supposed to be rights. If we’re clear on what they’re missing, we’ll be clear on what rights are.

What is missing in Nowheresville?

One thing that they have is duties or moral requirements. They can also enforce these duties: people who do the wrong thing can be punished or shamed much as people in our society are. What they lack is the idea that anything is due, or owed, to another person. That, in turn, can mean at least one of these two things:

  1. No particular person is in control of the duties. No one can waive the duties or insist that they be performed at a particular time.
  2. The failure to perform a duty doesn’t wrong any particular person. People in Nowheresville can’t legitimately feel resentment or a personal affront when someone else falls down on their duties.

They also have a system of personal desert, meaning they can think it’s appropriate that people get rewards or punishments. And they have special obligations generated by transactions, like contracts or promises. Following Heidi, we found this last category difficult: how can I make a promise if I don’t have a right to the thing that I’m promising, like my time?** This is basically Hart’s point. Roslyn, Alex, and Meredith all described systems of rules that might make this work without rights.

Finally, they can have a system of obligations generated by a higher authority, such as God or the state. I said that I found this point ambiguous. Did Feinberg mean that the people in Nowheresville think that God (or the state) has rights to issue laws and demand our compliance with them? That’s what this point suggests. But I thought that the people in Nowheresville weren’t supposed to have any idea of what rights are. If so, they wouldn’t understand how even God could have rights to make rules and demand compliance.

The ambiguity is important for the next issue we’ll discuss. If the people of Nowheresville think that others have rights but they do not, then I can see why their lack of rights would amount to a lack of self-respect. They would think that they’re inferior to the people who do have rights. But if they don’t understand rights at all, it’s less clear to me that they would lack self-respect simply because they don’t have rights. At least, it’s more difficult to show that this must be so.

This page was written by Michael Green for Philosophy of Law, Philosophy 34, Spring 2010. It was posted March 31, 2010.
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