Front Page Titles (by Subject) Individual vs. Social Rights - Literature of Liberty, Autumn 1981, vol. 4, No. 3
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Individual vs. Social Rights - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Autumn 1981, vol. 4, No. 3 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Individual vs. Social Rights
“Our Natural Bodies, Our Social Rights; Comments on Wheeler.” Nous 14(1980):195–202.
“Samuel Wheeler's amusing paper demonstrates wittingly or unwittingly, that it is as feasible in philosophy as in modern art to produce an undetectable spoof.” Thus David Braybrooke begins his generally negative assessment of Prof. Wheeler's philosophical justification of property rights. For Braybrooke, the assimilation of every possible item of property to parts of the body constitutes a reductio scarcely meriting serious analysis; nonetheless, he harnesses himself to the task.
First of all, Braybrooke states, Wheeler's theory of “incorporation” will not stand up in the face of the most minor complications of civilized life. Wheeler concentrates, for example, on the classic case of a single producer, working without collaboration on, say, a canoe, thereby incorporating that mode of locomotion into his body. Imagine, however, some primitive form of cooperation—2 men working together to make the dug-out canoe. Would not each have a claim to the craft as a new body part? But where does the claim of the one stop and that of the other begin? If no line can, in fact, be drawn, will not the completed canoe become part of both their bodies? When full account is taken of collaborative production, original and derived body rights may turn out to be much less individualistic than Wheeler anticipates.
Near the end of his paper, in a supplementary argument, Wheeler goes to great lengths to separate rights from life in the community, thus establishing in his own mind the universal applicability of rights despite the differences that exist among human societies. Braybrooke challenges this and insists that rights always involve other people—in addition to the person enjoying the rights. One person's right implies obligations that fall selectively upon others—obligations to refrain from impairing the right, obligations to assist in gaining
Wheeler also holds that ‘“person qua person’ is a notion which is metaphysically independent of society.” By this, does he have in mind mere animated human bodies capable of learning? Little effort is required to see that the capacities of such beings atrophy if they are not stimulated in a social setting. Persons are beings with socially established characters imbued with learning which results from interactions with others in various modal systems (one at home another or several at work, another at worship, etc.) Socially evolved systems of behavior apply also to rights—with sets of rules concerning status, exercise, assistance, non-interference, and redress.
Moreover, the very notion of rights evolved by means of a long social process which was based on a long series of precedents. At every stage, a concensus concerning the nature of rights grew out of particular institutional developments. This process of evolving concensus continues today.
The developing, open texture of rights may be one of their most useful characteristic features. At times when a certain amount of stability has been achieved, philosophers may ponder which rights are most valuable, considering the nature of man. The right to move and use one's body may number among the most valuable of these. Prof. Braybrooke, however, doubts whether the right to own and dispose of other items figures among these crucial rights; or, if it does, whether it embraces the right to own oil refineries. But whether it does or not, are not the rights to body and property, like all other rights, plainly social in character? redress when the right has been violated, obligations sometimes to carry out certain actions when exercising the right. (If it is my dugout and I ask for it, you must get off and give it to me.)