Rights and Obligations

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I have a few questions. I'm not going to argue for anything in this post. I just want to get a sense of what people think about a philosophical issue that's been bugging me a lot lately. I'm trying to think through the relationship between rights and obligations. In particular, do the two go hand in hand, or are there times when you have one but not the other? Some philosophers take them to be two sides of the same coin. If I have a right, that means people have an obligation toward me (e.g. if I have a right not to be killed, then you have an obligation not to kill me). If I have an obligation, then you have a corresponding right (e.g. if I have an obligation to keep a promise to you, then you have a right to my keeping that promise).

Does this sound right? Or are there cases when someone might have an obligation to someone without that person having rights to what is owed? I've come across two examples in philosophical literature recently. One was a claim by Judith Jarvis Thomson that when a brother is given a box of chocolates he has a moral obligation to share them with his brother, but his brother has no right to any of the chocolates, since they were given to his brother and not to him. The second was in an animal rights discussion by Carl Cohen. He thinks we have obligations to animals, but they're not the sort of creatures who have rights. Another example (this time mine) might be owing someone respect in a way that they have no right to expect it. Can I have such an obligation to do something the person has no right to expect? In general, can I have an obligation to someone who has no right to the thing I owe them?

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13 Comments

We can think of generic obligations without corresponding rights. I might have the obligation to give money to charity, but that doesn't mean that any particular charity has a right to my money. This comes into play when thinking of nationalized health care...some philosophers (Allan Buchanan among them) think that while the state may have an obligation to provide an adequate level of health care, it doesn't mean that the people have a right to that health care.

A quick quote from the President's Commission for the Study of Ethcial Problems in Medicine regarding this distinction: "To say that a person has a moral right to something is always to say that it is that person's due, that is, he or she is morally entitled to it. In contrast, the term "obligation" is used in two different senses. All moral right imply corresponding obligations, but, depending on the sense of the term that is being used, moral obligations may or may not imply corresponding rights...for example, a person may have a moral obligation to help those in need, even though the needy cannot, strictly speaking, demand that person's aid as something they are due." (This is from a medical ethics textbook called Intervention and Reflection by Ronald Munson.)

One might deny this distinction, of course...the example (of giving aid) given by the commission does seem, to me at least, right.

Good question, Jeremy. A couple thoughts, off the top [ahem] of my head:

I guess I think of obligation in terms of love in the I Corinthians 13 sense. If someone has wronged me, I have an obligation to God and to that person to forgive them, but I don’t think that they therefore have a right to be forgiven. I’m not sure any of us actually have rights outside of civilian rights granted by government, or a social structure in which a leader has a right to be followed; an authority a right to be heeded; an elder, a right to be respected, etc.

I don’t know that a promise grants the person promised the right to that promise being kept. A promise is more like a contract, and I’m not sure that a contract grants a right. Do I have a right to my husband’s faithfulness? I don’t think so, though I believe that our marriage vows establish an obligation for him to be faithful to me. And vice-versa :-).

I generally dislike rights language and in any event think it is used FAR too freely, but your formulation sounds correct to me, Jeremy, that rights must have a corresponding obligation but not necessarily the converse.

What I think is important to note is how any supposed right has to come from somewhere/someone and does not simply exist on its own. Thus Hobbes, in imagining his state of nature, completely did away with any idea of rights.

I guess this gets fuzzy when you start getting into what separates, in reality and in perception, the difference between rights and expectations.

Doesn't Hobbes have rights in the contract? He doesn't have natural rights, but doesn't he have rights in the contract? I'm not as interested for now in how we get rights but whether having an obligation means having a right. For Hobbes you clearly have no obligations (and I assume no rights) in the state of nature, but you clearly do have obligations in the contract to others in the contract who have agreed to sacrifice certain freedoms to gain what we might call rights. I don't know if he uses the word, but even if he didn't he certainly could without really changing his substantive views.

My memory, which is pretty faulty on this stuff, is that in Hobbes view men trade awaw their only "natural" right, what I would call self-determination or freedom, in its entirety as a trade for the security of a political order, i.e. a king. I don't remember him using the idea of "rights" regarding any claims of the people against the ruler (in any event, rights language hadn't really developed much in Hobbes time), but I think he felt that the basic nature of the "social contract" meant that the king has an obligation to provide order, since that is what the people give away their freedom to obtain.

I read Leviathan twice (don't ask why) but it doesn't stick all that well in the memory. Here's the basic statement of the nature of government by Hobbes:

". . .as if every man should say to every man I authorize and give up my right of governing my selfe, to this man, or to this assembly of men, on this condition, that thou give up thy right to him, and authorise all his actions in like manner. This done, the multitude so united in one person, is called a COMMON-WEALTH, in latine CIVITAS. This is the generation of that great LEVIATHAN, or rather (to speak more reverently) of that Mortall God, to which we owe under the Immortall God, our peace and defense. For by this authoritie, given him by every particular man in the Common-Wealth, he hath the use of so much power and strength conferred on him, that by terror thereof, he is inabled to forme the wills of them all, to peace at home, and mutual ayd against their enemies abroad." (Leviathan Part II, chapter 17)

So the authority Hobbes ascribes to the sovereign is absolute due to the people giving away their natural rights to attain peace.

Some thoughts.

In the first example, is it the breaching of the first brothers right to charity what we might find wrong with the second brother's taking (without consent). Even though he feels his brother is obligated give him half.

Alternatively, it might be a question of will or action. If I have an obligation to you, I must act or will to follow that obligation through. You do not have the right to coerce me to hold to the obligation, by preempting my obligation, e.g., taking half the chocolates.

I think that after a right there is an obligation, that if there is no obligation, there is not a corresponding right, and the other way round.

I´m from Argentina.
I am trying to understand your last point: "I must act or will to follow that obligation through. You do not have the right to coerce me to hold to the obligation, by preempting my obligation"

I think Mark was just saying that people don't always have the right to force me to do things that I have obligations to do, even if I have an obligation to do something for them.

I believe, for several reasons, that we only have negative moral rights. These are rights against harmful positive agency, where the most direct contribution to harm is action, as opposed to inaction. There is a moral difference between killing and letting die. We are prohibited from killing anyone (i.e., violating their negative moral right against killing) but we are not morally obligated to save anyone. Saving people is morally supererogatory, an act that is good to do but not morally obligatory to do. The way you define the terms requirement and obligation you seem to imply that a moral requirement is stronger than a moral obligation. I use the terms required/obligated interchangeably because there is already a weaker word, supererogatory. In conclusion no one may force me to do anything to help people, one may only prohibit me from doing things which hurt people. Again, there is a difference between hurting (positive agency) and not helping (negative agency).

I'm pretty sure I was intending to use 'requirement' and 'obligation' interchangeably.

Here's why I can't accept your view. If I could save an entire city from a nuclear holocaust, and all it would do would be to lift my finger and press a single button, it seems obvious to me that I'm morally obligated to do so. On your view, it's just good if I do so, because it would take a positive act, and if I refrain I'm not doing anyone any harm.

That's a good point Jeremy, and it's part of the reason I went from being a deontologist to a utilitarian. When one of your rights (e.g. freedom of movement) conflicts with your obligations (e.g. to rescue others in need), I think the best way to resolve the matter is to use a cost-benefit analysis, if you have time. In the example you gave the answer to what should do is obvious, I agree. But what about in a harder case like whether you should try to rescue people from a burning building? As a utilitarian, I think you ought to do whatever action is expected to produce the most well-being, though in an emergency you have to decide very quickly, of course.

I can see why a utilitarian would think that way, but I have in mind deontological obligations as the ground of genuine deontological rights. So it's not quite what I meant.

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