February 18, 2010

What is a Right?

Among my moral convictions is the conviction that there is a sharp distinction to be drawn between public or political morality and private or individual morality. This roughly corresponds to Kant's distinction between the Doctrine of Right and the Doctrine of Virtue. That there be such a distinction is important to me because I believe that political morality is very permissive, whereas private morality is very restrictive. I have tried to cash this out before. I want to try it again today, by examining what I take to be the central concept of political morality, the concept of having a right.

The kinds of rights I am interested in are rights to be treated in a certain way. We may talk about having a right against another person when one has a right to be treated in a certain way by that person. I think the most important rights are rights against everybody, but talking about one particular other person sometimes makes things simpler. Now, some people believe that every ought connected to another person gives rise to a right. (Here and in what follows 'ought' is a primitive moral ought.) That is, they hold that:

A has a right against B to be treated in manner m =df. B ought to treat A in manner m.

In my view, this sort of ought is a necessary but insufficient condition of A's having this right, for it seems to me that there are many ways people ought to treat me in which I nevertheless do not have a right to be treated. Someone could of course stipulate that this was to be the definition of 'right'. Against stipulations, only pragmatic arguments can be given, and the pragmatic argument which seems most important to me here is that shifting all of our moral language to rights language in this way leads us to focus on how others ought to treat us, when we ought instead to focus on how we ought to treat others.

Here is a better definition, which I call the Grievance Criterion for Rights:

(GCR) A has a right against B to be treated in manner m =df. (i) B ought to treat A in manner m and (ii) if B does not treat A in manner m, A has a legitimate grievance against B.

This at least deals with my concern about the entitlement focus: even if (as I think) it is often virtuous not to insist on one's rights, surely it is less problematic to think of the situation in terms of one's entitlements when one has a legitimate grievance.

But what constitutes a legitimate grievance? Here is one criterion, the Reparation Criterion for Grievances:

(RCG) If A has a legitimate grievance against B, and A demands reparations from B, then B ought to submit to A's demand.

Reparations are governed by some sort of principle of proportionality, which I won't discuss here; we'll just assume that reparations are by definition proportionate to the grievance. The combination of GCR and RCG strikes me as very plausible. However, it is to be noted that RCG cannot serve as a definition of 'legitimate grievance' if GCR is to work, because this would imply that no one has a right not to be murdered. Furthermore, there are some cases in which it is virtuous to submit to an unjust demand. (Perhaps in a few cases it is even obligatory.) Still, RCG seems to me to be a plausible moral principle, and a helpful criterion for identifying legitimate grievances, in the sense relevant to GCR.

There is a further claim, which will likely be more controversial, but which I think is also true. Call it Coerced Reparations.

(CR) If (i) A has a legitimate grievance against B, and (ii) A demands reparations from B, and (iii) B does not submit to A's demand voluntarily, and (iv) A coerces or attempts to coerce B into submitting to A's demand, this does not give B a legitimate grievance against A.

Again, there are details to be filled in. For instance, presumably not just any form or degree of coercion is permissible. However, it seems that if such a situation does give B a legitimate grievance against A it is not because A coerced reparations from B but for some other reason; for instance, because A's unnecessarily strong coercion caused permanent damage to B.

Now, something that is important to me is that this picture does not entail that whenever one has a legitimate grievance one ought to demand reparations, nor does it entail that whenever someone refuses to submit voluntarily to a demand for reparations coercion ought to be applied. This is critically important if a theory of rights anywhere near as broad as the libertarian theory is to have any plausibility. For instance, the libertarian theory of rights is broad enough to ensure that everyone in the US has a legitimate grievance against the US government. Because US law does not recognize all the natural rights individuals have (and also because of other institutional flaws), in most cases the government will not submit to demands for reparations. Yet it is clear that in the everyday cases in which, e.g., my freedom of contract is severely restricted, it would be both foolish and immoral to attempt to extract reparations by force.

Here is another closely related principle I accept. Call it Non-interference in Just Coercion.

(NJC) When conditions (i)-(iii) of CR are satisfied, A has a right not to be interfered with in coercing reparations from B.

This doesn't quite entail CR, but it does entail that B does not, in this circumstance have a right to self-defense.

I think these principles give a structural outline of the sort of theory I would want to defend.The challenge is in spelling out the details of the structure and, especially, in giving the view some actual content by identifying what rights individuals have.

Posted by Kenny at February 18, 2010 5:49 PM
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Comments

I responded to your post; for some reason, my trackback didn't send.

Posted by: David Fryman at March 5, 2010 9:34 AM

David -

Thanks for the link. I often have technical difficulties with trackbacks, and I haven't been able to figure out why, so you should feel free to post links in the comments as you have done here.

In response to your post, I just have a preference for using 'right' to mean 'political right', but this is purely verbal. In the previous discussion" Jeremy Pierce made the same suggestion (see the last paragraph of his comment), which is why I respond to it explicitly in this post.

Posted by: Kenny at March 5, 2010 9:59 AM

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