Critique of rights-talk: three key points

Before we wrap up our review of “Natural Law and Natural Rights” (NLNR), I want to take a moment to sum up my protracted two-part Coasean critique of rights-talk (here is part one and here is part two) by making three key points:

  • Key Point #1: To assert a moral or legal right is to pose a series of challenging questions: what is the scope of that right, and how will or should it be enforced (if at all)? Also, who is the obligor of that right, and who is its beneficiary?
  • Key Point #2: The assertion or exercise of a right will almost always generate a new set of conflicts at many different levels, including (1) conflicts with other rights; (2) conflicts with other rights-holders; and (3) conflicts with public officials about the proper interpretation and application of the right.
  • Key Point #3: My Coasean critique of rights-talk not only applies to Finnis’s work. It also applies to Robert Nozick’s major premise in Anarchy, state, and utopia (1974, p. ix): “Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights).”

For all of these reasons, my personal preference is to focus on duties first (i.e. on the cost-side of the reciprocal rights-duties equation), rather than on rights. As it happens, Professor Finnis devotes an entire chapter of NLNR to the topic of “obligation” (Chapter XI), so will I will proceed with my review of Finnis on Monday.

Related image

What about duties?

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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