Rights-based rights

Law and Philosophy 3 (3):407 - 421 (1984)


Ronald Dworkin maintains that particular rights, like the right to free speech and the right to own personal property, can be derived from a foundational right, the right to equal concern and respect. This paper questions the tenability of this program for rights-based rights. A right is an individuated moral or political guarantee which confers a specified benefit on each right-holder and which resists conduct that would derogate it. For there to be rights-based rights, both the foundational right and the rights it implies must satisfy this definition. It is doubtful, however, that the right to equal concern and respect should count as a right since the benefits it confers are at best highly controversial and may not be assignable to individuals. But even if we grant that the content of the right to equal concern and respect can be satisfactorily specified, the status of the derived rights remains problematic. The trouble is that the relation between the right to equal concern and respect and the rights it implies parallels the relation between the principle of utility and the rights it may imply. Both of these foundational principles can extinguish derived rights. Consequently, rights dependent on either of these principles are not trumps, and their standing as rights is suspect. I conclude that Dworkin's method of defending rights is inappropriate for the most important of our rights though it may well serve for less critical ones.

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Diana Meyers
University of Connecticut

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