Rights and Moral Personality in Contemporary Ethical Theories

Dissertation, The Johns Hopkins University (1981)

In this dissertation we will analyse accounts of rights and moral personality in three major contemporary ethical theories. We will examine the doctrines defended by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice, by Abraham Melden in Rights and Persons, and by representative proponents of utilitarianism. Our purpose in this analysis will be fourfold. ;First, we will be concerned to present and accurate and careful exposition of the accounts of rights and moral personality in the three major theories. Thus, in our examination of justice as fairness, we will explain how the description of the parties in the original position expresses a conception of ourselves as free and equal moral persons and we will examine how the two principles of justice determine a set of rights appropriate to this conception. In Chapter III, we will discuss both the connotation and the denotation of the various expressions Melden believes to be coextensive with the notion of a moral person. Finally, in Chapter IV, we will explore Rawls' account of the notion of the person in utilitarian theories. Also, we will review the utilitarian theories of Richard Flathman and R. B. Brandt for implications concerning different kinds of rights. ;Secondly, we will examine critically the adequacy of these accounts. This assessment will involve, as one part, a direct consideration of the objections mounted by the various authors with respect to one another. We will argue that Rawls may be committed to a more egalitarian account of rights than that which he defends. We will argue that Melden ought to accept a narrow extension for the class of persons. In Chapter IV, we will review Rawls' criticism of the utilitarian conception of the person and examine Ronald Dworkin's claim that utilitarianism fails to take rights seriously. ;This examination will permit us, thirdly, to resolve some of the disputes among the various authors. We will argue, contrary to Melden's claim, that Rawls can provide room in his theory for natural rights. However, we will concede that Rawls may have difficulty accounting for some of our considered judgments concerning special rights in family relationships. In Chapter III, we will propose that Melden's analysis of these special rights is most appropriately conceived as a complement, rather than as an alternative, to Rawls' theory. Finally, on our chapter on utilitarianism, we will suggest that the conception of the person in that theory is not best explained by means of Rawls' methodology and we will defend the utilitarian account of rights against Dworkin's criticism. ;Fourth, we will endeavor to determine the source of those disagreements which remain unsettled. This analysis will be undertaken by means of an investigation into the logic and significance of natural rights in moral theory. We will demonstrate that natural rights express a certain basic principle about the normative character of moral personality and that they represent commitment to a particular theoretical role for that concept. We will show that utilitarianism is not committed to the idea of natural rights and that it presupposes a different theoretical role for the notion of the person. This fundamental difference between deontological and utilitarian ethics may be seen to reflect an unresolved meta-ethical dispute concerning the purpose of a moral theory. ;In our final chapter, we will summarize our findings concerning both the normative theoretical relationships between the notions of rights and the meta-ethical presuppositions of the theories we have considered. We will also propose some possibilities for further investigation concerning these issues
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