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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S054-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 24, 2024, from

Article Summary

There is widespread consensus that rights are ways of acting or of being treated that are beneficial to the rightholder. Controversy begins, however, when one attempts to specify the notion of rights further.

(1) It is sometimes said, perhaps too casually, that all rights carry with them correlated obligations – things that other persons are supposed to do or refrain from doing when some given person is said to have a right to something. The question is: how is it best to state this relationship between rights and correlated obligations?

(2) Most people think that rights are, in some sense, justified. But there is considerable controversy as to what, precisely, is the proper focus of justification. Some say that rights are practices (certain ways of acting or of being treated) that are established, typically socially established. Thus, the issue for them is whether the fact of social recognition and enforcement is justified (or could be). Others say that rights themselves are claims; hence a right is a justified claim or principle of some sort (whether the practice identified in that claim exists or not). This dispute, between rights as justified practices and rights as justified claims, needs to be explored and, if possible, resolved.

Other topics need addressing beyond the question of the initial characterization of rights. One of them is the question of the function of rights: what good are they anyway? what can one do with rights? Another is the question of how best to justify particular kinds of rights, such as human rights and basic constitutional rights. Is there a substantive theory of critical morality that can do the job? Many people are concerned, especially, with whether utilitarianism (one of the dominant ethical theories in the West today) is up to this task. Finally, mention should be made of one other issue much talked about of late: what kinds of beings can have rights, and under what conditions of possession and dispossession?

Citing this article:
Martin, Rex. Rights, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S054-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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