Front Page Titles (by Subject) Rights vs. Right Judgment - Literature of Liberty, April/June 1978, vol. 1, No. 2
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
Rights vs. Right Judgment - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, April/June 1978, vol. 1, No. 2 
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.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
This work is copyrighted by the Institute for Humane Studies, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, and is put online with their permission.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Rights vs. Right Judgment
“Dispensing with Moral Rights.” Political Theory 6 (February 1977): 63–74.
Robert Nozick, among others, asserts that men have moral rights which others may not infringe. But such appeals to inviolable rights are often idle and suffer from indeterminateness. Of course, claiming moral rights has obvious tactical advantages despite these grave shortcomings. But can such claims to rights be made legitimately? It may be contended that we really sacrifice nothing by jettisoning the concept of moral rights and simply appealing to judgments based on correct moral principles. Thus, there is no real moral advantage in employing rights language. We will sacrifice nothing important by making claims in the language of “what (objectively) it would be right morally to do.”
A conventionalist rendering of moral rights may be offered. This would, for example, be offered. This would, for example, be sufficient to condemn slavery throughout history even if people in slave holding societies had not arrived at that moral conclusion. This is possible simply by pointing out the errors in moral calculation or fact committed by those societies. Thus, a conventionalist position could accommodate the advantages of a moral rights argument (i.e., that it could condemn violations of rights even if such rights were unrecognized in a given society).
The typical arguments against moral rights are: that lists of these rights tend to proliferate; that there is no single agreed list; and that the definition of these rights is fuzzy. Perhaps the strongest argument is the contention that the proponents of human rights have not yet given an adequate justification of those human rights. The usual properties used to define an equality of rights (e.g., the equality of all persons in some “natural capacity,” or in their liability to pain, or, finally, in their possession of some transcendental properties) seem either to be too weak to justify the whole structure of human rights or to introduce new mysteries that only compound the problem.
The justification of moral rights has been left on rather flimsy grounds, an observation going back over 150 years to Jeremy Bentham.