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November 26, 20052 responses
Thomas Pogge and Peter S. Fosl
It makes sense to start with your more general question: What is a (basic) human right? Official documents and public pronouncements typically leave this nebulous by not making explicit who bears what correlative duties to the human rights postulated or invoked. They are typically clearer with regard to the object of any human right -- that which this human right is a right to.
Toward making the correlative duties explicit: I think that any human right imposes at least two kinds of duties on other human agents (persons, corporations, organizations, governments, etc.). These are interactional duties: duties not to deprive human persons of the objects of this human right, and institutional duties: duties not to collaborate in imposing on human persons social rules under which some will foreseeably and avoidably lack secure access to the objects of their human rights (unless one also makes compensating efforts to reform the rules or to protect their victims).
A specific human right might then be accepted just in case it can be supported by the following three considerations. First, the object of the candidate human right must be genuinely important to all or nearly all human beings during some parts of their lives. Second, avoiding the duties correlative to the candidate human right must be considerably less important or not important at all. Third, the two preceding judgments must be broadly sharable across cultures.
Supported by these three considerations, accepted human rights then furnish widely sharable minimal standards for how agents should treat human beings and for the justice of social rules. Human rights to basic levels of education and medical care would, I think, meet this test:
First, the objects of these candidate human rights are genuinely important for meaningful participation in a society's social and political life and, in the case of medical care, even for biological functioning and survival.
Second, the correlative burdens are relatively light: We must not act in ways that deprive others of basic education or medical care, and we must help organize our society so that all its members have secure access to these goods insofar as this is reasonably possible.
Third, the preceding two judgments are widely sharable across cultures, so long as the right is confined to basic levels of education and medical care and such basic levels are fixed in light of the resources available in the social systems whose rules are under assessment.
Imagine a society in which access to even basic education and medical care must be paid for and where therefore, quite foreseeably and quite avoidably, many born into poor families will not be able to learn reading and writing in school or to receive treatment for a ruptured appendix. My acceptance of human rights to basic levels of education and medical care commits me to judging such a society to be seriously unjust and to the view that this judgment is widely shareable across cultures.
Think of the IMF imposing strucutural adjustment programs on African countries, requiring the latter to introduce school fees, with the result of a substantial drop in school enrollments, and higher fees for medical care, with the result that many serious and readily treatable diseases remained untreated. My acceptance of human rights to basic levels of education and medical care commits me to judging such IMF conduct to be seriously wrong and to the view that this judgment is widely shareable across cultures.
The commitments derived in the last two paragraphs reinforce my belief that, on my rough and incomplete account of what human rights are, your two candidate rights should be accepted as human rights.
These two candidates, and many others as well, become much harder -- I believe: impossible -- to defend if one defines human rights as (also) imposing correlative duties to protect and promote. I therefore reject this definition. To be sure, I do not deny that we have moral duties to protect and to promote human rights. I am denying merely that these duties are correlative to human rights -- that is, that any violations of these duties are violations of the corresponding human rights.
November 8, 20051 response
Affirmative action programs can be morally acceptable or even required when they benefit a group that is prevented from competing on fair terms. Consider a group that had much inferior access to schooling and therefore did not have a fair chance of attaining the educational achievements that would make them competitive in their candidacy for a college or job. By giving members of this group a break, we are in one sense lowering standards: Lower-scoring candidates are chosen over higher-scoring ones. But in terms of expected performance, we may not be lowering standards at all: A somewhat lower score achieved by a poorly educated person may indicate greater brightness and promise than a somewhat higher score achieved by someone who had the opportunity of attending top schools. Of course, taking educational background into account in this way may engender resentment. But insofar as such resentment derives from a perception of injustice, it may disappear once the rationale for such affirmative action is understood. If it is not unjust that family privilege fails to buy one an advantage over other, more promising (but much less well-educated) candidates, then why should one resent it?
How long should such programs be kept running? In the case described above, affirmative action is justified by appeal to excessive inequalities in access to schooling. Such large inequalities can and should be abolished -- for instance by ensuring that roughly equal amounts per pupil are expended in all of a country's schools. (In the US, this might require modification of a funding regime that relies on revenues from local property taxes, which may vary widely from one location to another.) Until these large inequalities are abolished, the justification of affirmative action remains intact.
November 3, 20051 response
October 13, 20051 response
November 7, 20051 response
Tamar Szabo Gendler
Others on the panel know more
about this topic than I do, but since this question has gone unanswered
for several days, here is one non-expert’s answer.
The most important 20th-century work on Justice within the Anglo-American philosophical tradition is undoubtedly John Rawls’ Theory of Justice (1971). Rawls is primarily concerned with the issue of distributive justice
– the question of how limited resources within a community could be
fairly allocated among its members. Rawls contends that a just
distribution is one in which all citizens have basic rights and
liberties, and in which social and economic inequalities are arranged
so as to be of greatest benefit of the least
advantaged members of society. Rawls’ original book is difficult but
readable even by non-specialists.
One of the most influential critiques of Rawls can be found in Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974). Nozick maintains that what makes a distribution just
is simply that it was arrived at as the result of a series of
individually just transactions: no particular pattern of distribution
is mandated or ruled-out in advance.
courses on the theory of justice typically include selections from each
of these books, along with historical sources – often including
selections from Plato’s Republic, Hobbes’ Leviathan, Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, and John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism—and contemporary writers – often including selections from Michael Sandel’s Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, and feminist writers such as Susan Moller Okin.
particularly nice anthology – which includes selections from many of
the texts listed above, along with a well-assembled collection of
additional readings – is Robert Solomon and Mark Murphy (eds.) What is Justice? Classic and Contemporary Readings (Oxford 2000), whose table of contents can be viewed here.
November 7, 20051 response
I'm a little puzzled by this question. In what sense do victims get justice from the working of the criminal justice system? I ask this question in all sincerity. I know many people sincerely believe that it is one of the purposes of the criminal justice system to dispense justice to victims of crime, but I have never myself seen it that way, and I don't really understand why other people do. So I'm puzzled.
For what it's worth, though, I don't think "vigilante action" is ever morally acceptable, so long as a functioning government is in place. It may be understandable in certain cases, but that is different. The IRA dispensed its own brand of justice in Northern Ireland for years, and we have now seen where that leads. Just ask the sisters of Robert McCartney, who were otherwise no fans of British rule.
November 4, 20051 response
Nicholas D. Smith
I am not sure whether ownership is the right way to frame this question. It seems that it might be more perspicuous to think of the question in terms, perhaps, of duties we owe to one another, in terms of respect for other cultures (and others' cultures), or of virtue considerations such as being respectful of others. From these points of view, I think answers are easier to reach: It certainly seems like a kind of violation of a duty to respect others (for example, as an application of one of the ways Kant formulates what he calls the categorical imperative, which mandates treating others as ends only, and never as means), and also seems like the vice of disrespect for others to violate rituals in this way.
Of course, it might also be more complicated, depending upon what motives apply to the apropriation (commencial? for the purposes of ridicule? out of a sense of shared reverence?).
November 2, 20052 responses
Joseph G. Moore and Alexander George
It's worth distinguishing between what one is free to do and what value
to one that freedom has. Perhaps you're right that in a world in which
there was no political society (a State of Nature, as some political
philosophers call it) we would be free to do many more things than we
are now (since no laws would exist that restrict our freedom). But the worth
of those freedoms would be very small. Yes, we'd be free to travel
wherever we wanted (without the need for passports, etc.), but most
likely, absent the security that a political society provides, the
level of industrial development would be so low that there would be no
cars, no planes, no roads, etc. Even if there were roads, it would be
so very dangerous to set out on them that I wouldn't dare risk it.
Whereas now, my freedom to travel is worth something to me: I can drive
(I have a car, I can buy fuel for it, there are roads!) confidently to
the airport (there are airports!) and take a plane (there's an
aerospace industry!) to Reykjavik. The freedom to fly to Reykjavik
isn't worth much if there are no planes, no cars, no roads, no safe
So, even if you thought that freedom (the absence of
conduct-regulating laws enforced by the power of the state) is a good
thing and that freedom would be increased living in a State of Nature,
reasonable people might still choose to live in a political society
with a government that restricts their freedoms, because the freedoms they would have would be of value to them. (See also Question 291.)
October 30, 20051 response
October 21, 20054 responses
Gabriel Segal, Daniel J. Velleman, Richard Heck and Tamar Szabo Gendler
The article to which Dan links raises questions about marriage, adoption, and child-rearing that are often found at the basis of people's concerns about gay marriage. I think there is a great deal of discomfort in US society nowadays (I'll stick to my own country) concerning these issues and, more generally, all kinds of issues relating to family. Some people feel very profoundly that the biological link between parent and child is deeply important, and the stories one so often hears of adopted children devoting large parts of their lives to seeking their birth-parents reinforces this opinion. (So-called open adoption bypasses that problem.)
I think one can understand why someone with strong enough views along these lines would be opposed to gay marriage, in so far as gay marriage would instill certain kinds of parental rights. Of course, as has often been pointed out, such rights existed in Massachusetts before gay marriage was recognized, and there are many other jurisdictions in which such rights already exist, as well. Moreover, as the writer of the article to which Dan posted noted, such concerns do not seem to have a great deal to do with gay marriage but with deeper questions about adoption and child-rearing. Nonetheless, such concerns do tend to surface here. And, while one may find such concerns misdirected and unconvincing, they aren't necessarily bigoted.
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