Rights and Duties

The test of whether one has a “right” to something is whether someone else has a duty to provide it. The two—a right and its correlative duty—are logically inseparable; like mountain and valley or ebb and flow, one exists only with the other. Hence if no one has a duty to provide you something, you have no right to it; and you can claim a right to something only if it is someone else’s duty to provide it for you.

What is not the test for having a right to something is that one really, really wants it. I would love a penthouse apartment in Manhattan, and it would make my life much more enjoyable if I had one. But I have no right to one because, if I did, that would mean someone else has a duty to provide it for me—which of course is absurd.

Yet consider health care. Many assert that people have a right to basic health care. But health care does not grow on trees: It is provided only at considerable expense on the part of other people, and that expense must be procured from somewhere. So when you claim that you have a right to health care, you are claiming you have a right to other people’s money, energy, talent, and hard work. Do you?

It is hard to imagine that we must actually answer that question, but in these days of political fairy tales, let us be clear: You do not have a right to other people’s money, energy, talent, or hard work. It might be nice of them to give it to you; it might be charitable or generous or magnanimous or otherwise praiseworthy if they gave some of it to you. But you have no right to it. Sorry.

Perhaps you’re inclined to think that the “right to life” mentioned in the Declaration of Independence entitles you to health care. That’s a mistake, if an easy and common one. What the Declaration claims you have a natural right to are things that do not require others to take positive action to provide. It lists life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness: I can respect your “natural rights” to these by simply leaving you alone, by refraining from molesting you. That is a “negative” duty, a duty not to undertake unjust actions. This kind of duty we can indeed believe everyone has toward everyone else, because everyone can simultaneously respect everyone else’s rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness simply, as Adam Smith put it, “by sitting still and doing nothing.”

By contrast, granting people a right to health care means imposing positive duties on some for the benefit of others. That is precisely the sort of liberty-impinging exploitation that the Declaration meant to rule out. Congressional action declaring it legal does not change its essential character, just as the legality of slavery at one time in this country did not alter its essential character. Using some for the benefit of others has an intrinsic moral repugnance that is not erased by congressional action or by closing our eyes to the actual source of or the full costs of the proposed benefits.

Take one other case. A measure in the recently passed ObamaCare bill prohibits private companies from offering federally guaranteed student loans, leaving the federal government itself as the only lender. Part of the rationale for this is that people have a “right” to education that should, therefore, be guaranteed and provided by the government.

But no one has a right to a college education. This case is even easier than that of health care. Can people survive without a college education? Yes, of course, and quite famously—as several United States presidents, Nobel laureates, and billionaire entrepreneurs (like Bill Gates and Michael Dell) all amply attest. College education is a luxury, not a necessity; and if having a college degree means increased earnings for the graduate, shouldn’t it be the graduate who pays for it?

Regardless, the real test, again, is whether others have a duty to provide it. College education, like health care, is not free. If “the government” is subsidizing, guaranteeing, or underwriting your education, the true, full costs are still borne somewhere by someone.

The would-be beneficiaries of such manufactured “rights” have understandable, if misguided, reasons for asserting them. And of course politicians’ moral grandstanding is also understandable, if lamentable.

But let us not forget the longsuffering taxpayer who is bled, again and again, to support these programs. We may find, sooner than we care to suppose, that the taxpayer simply has no more to give.

66 thoughts on “Rights and Duties

  1. Your whole argument is based on a false premise, that a government only does things that other people have a duty to do.

    In other countries, the government provides healthcare and education to the population because the public itself is the ultimate beneficiary, not because any one has a “right” to it.

    As a non-local, I’m confused about why the government shouldn’t prohibit other companies from offering *federally underwritten* loans. Is it also prohibiting any kind of loans?

    As for the long-suffering tax payer…. the point of publicly funded healthcare and education is that we *share* the costs. Somehow that notion of sharing seems lost in the current the debate, and we only rail upon our loss of liberty.

    Yours… a fraternatarian.

  2. this argument seems wrong because we assume that government has the duty to protect us from foreign incursions, etc. building a military is an expense that takes the taxpayers’ hard earned cash into something that only the government could (best) spend. thinking about healthcare, to maintain the health of the citizenry, in the same way isn’t a hard stretch. but does this mean we (americans) assume the govt has a duty to provide a military, a police force, and a fire fighter brigade. these institutions all protect the welfare of the citizenry. having a form of nationalized health care to maintain the welfare of the citizenry isn’t a stretch to justify from there.

    i don’t agree that health care is a right, because i believe that it can be provided by the market. but your argument is built on shaky foundations.

  3. The ‘long suffering’ taxpayers of Europe manage to pay significantly less than their US counterparts, and generally have universal coverage to boot. I don’t think I’d argue it as a “right”, just something that a civilized society ought to have.

  4. I feel a duty to provide healthcare to the American disadvantaged. It might be duty gated by pragmatism. If it were possible to provide healthcare to the world I might feel a duty to do that too, but I don’t see that working.

    No, national health is possible, as demonstrated in most market democracies, and so I have a duty to provide it, too.

  5. I agree that a right implies a duty, but I’m not sure about the converse. For instance, what about the duty to charity? I think that I have a duty to do my part to alleviate the distress of those less fortunate than I. But I also don’t think that any particular person has a right to compel me to provide for him/her. Nor do I think that I may be legitimately compelled to satisfy my duty in any particular fashion. Thus, the state has no right to set up a national health care system by coercive means, even if there is a general moral duty to contribute toward alleviating others’ poverty and distress.

  6. As you might imagine from my comments, I’m with Jason on the first half of his. I think where we split is that the “coercion” and “burden” are overblown here.

    If I were forced, in chains, to turn the capstan providing health care, it might be different. It’s not like that though. Through good fortune, progress, and prosperity, we’ve reached a point where health care is achievable.

    Canada, despite being positioned as a bogey man, is actually a pretty happy place.

  7. The means certainly are coercive, though. Everyone has to pay taxes to fund the national health insurance program, and if you didn’t you’d go to jail. Whether you think that’s justified or not depends on what you think about people’s legitimate property rights and the source of the state’s authority.

    (And the U.S. isn’t really all that different from Canada on health care, since Medicare and Medicaid together make up about half of all health care dollars.)

  8. To David N. Welton: Europe is on an unsustainable fiscal trajectory, and, unless dramatic changes are made, it will soon face economic crisis. Greece is the proverbial canary in the coal mine. Government policies regarding health care are one principal cause of its problems, so I don’t think Europe is the model we should emulate. (Europe also free-rides on the United States in many ways, so its looming crisis would come much quicker if it had to stand it its own two feet.)

    To Fraternatarian: My post didn’t address arguments that governments should provide health care because “the public itself is the ultimate beneficiary.” Instead, my argument addressed only those who claim they have a “right” to health care, which people frequently claim. If they indeed had a right to it, it would mean others had a duty to provide it; because I dispute the consequent, however, I therefore dispute the antecedent. (It is a simple modus tollens.) Thus my argument does not assume the “false premise” you identify.

    Finally, to Jason and John Personna: I think we’re talking about two different things. My argument is that when one claims a right to something, it means, as a matter of logic, that someone else (or something else, like a government) therefore has a duty to provide it. That would apply to health care and education just as it would to defense and security. What you identify, by contrast, are what might be called “personal duties,” which are imperatives to oneself that derive from the conception of morality that one adopts (or, to use Kantian language, that one legislates to oneself). These sometimes imply rights on the part of the person to whom one has a duty to act, but not always. So, promises I have made to my family imply a duty to act in certain ways toward them, which in turn might imply a “right” or, perhaps better, a “reasonable expectation” on their part that I act in those ways. On the other hand, as you suggest, the duty to feed the poor that, for example, one might (like a priest) incur because of an oath one takes does not imply an enforceable right on the part of any poor person.

    The difference is that in the cases I am discussing (health care and education) the alleged right one person claims thereby imposes a duty on another person; by contrast, in the cases you are discussing the alleged duty one person claims imposes an obligation on no one but the claimant himself.

  9. So when was the last time you heard the argument that “the Smithsonian Institution thrives on coercion?”

    It is nominally true, in the same sense that “health care is coercion,” but … I guess it’s small enough money that most people don’t care?

    (Personally, I’d do the health care and dump the museums.)

  10. Thanks, Jim, that explanation makes sense to me. There might be a slight difference in point of view between us in that I think there can be positive moral duties that we have in virtue of being placed to help, even if we have not voluntarily taken them on. For instance, if my neighbor’s house is on fire, I think I have a duty to help in any reasonable way that does not put my own life in danger, but I also think that the neighbor does not have the right to compel my assistance.

    1. I find myself about halfway between Jason and Jim on this one. But that’s because I think there’s space for an additional distinction, between coercible and non-coercible duties. And I think that matters here.

      I can accept, with Jason, that I have positive duties to aid others. Among the ways I aid them, that might include with their needs for health care. But that doesn’t entail that I have a coercible duty to aid others. I take it the moral situation changes very quickly if Jason — for whatever reasons — chooses not to fight his neighbor’s fire, and I decide to force him to do so. In fact, at that point what matters is not what’s going between Jason and his neighbor or the fire, it’s what’s going on between Jason and me.

      Similarly, I think, for Jim’s main point. The key moral idea is that coercion is a really severe moral failure between human beings. It might under some conditions be justified. But it takes some serious argument to justify it. The fact that one has a duty to do something doesn’t begin by itself to get there. That’s why e.g. John Personna’s argument doesn’t really do anything to Jim’s basic point. Jim isn’t arguing that John shouldn’t help those in need of health care. Jim is arguing that John is not justified in coercing him (Jim) to do so as well. The point isn’t the health care needs of those who need them. The point is about John’s (alleged) authority to compel Jim when they differ in judgment about what to do.

      Notice that this also isn’t a point about a difference between positive and negative rights. On any plausible view, we have duties not to lie to others. But nobody I know of seriously suggests that those duties are coercible, except under very special circumstances. Instead, it’s a function of the relative significance of the obligations we have generally and the specific obligation we have not to try to exert authority over others (our moral equals) in ways that coercion by its very nature involves.

  11. “if having a college degree means increased earnings for the graduate, shouldn’t it be the graduate who pays for it?”

    this only shows half the equation.

    the college graduate, and the rest of us benefit (the very nature of economic activity is competition). the college graduate has positive externalities as a result of a better education.

    subsequently, if the college graduate pays the full cost of education, it is we who are the free riders.

  12. misterxroboto, pointing out that there are positive externalities to a college education, doesn’t seem to advance the discussion of rights/duties. There are positive externalities to most activities, but we don’t thereby require taxpayers to subsidies those activities. For example, my the value of my house goes up when my neighbor landscapes his. That makes me a free rider, I suppose, but doesn’t justify a government landscaping program.

    Our Constitution, instituted to protect God-given or natural rights (not create them), established specific functions for Congress. Subsidizing health insurance and financing education are not among those rights.

    1. Are you saying that if I impose a cost on you, I’m not required to pay because I’m exercising my natural rights?

      Let’s say I pollute, for example. I build a cement factory next to your neighborhood through the seller’s natural right to own property and my natural right to buy it from him.

      I impose a cost on your entire community by the pollution I expel into the commonly owned (or if you prefer, unowned) air.

      Should I not have to pay because it’s my property and I can do what I wish?

      As a completely separate note, you claim that the congress is not authorized to subsidize health insurance and education. Both of these count as interstate commerce, which is explicitly provided for in Article I Sec 8.

      If you prefer an originalist approach, that such things were not interstate commerce at the time, for example, then I must ask what your take on Fourth Amendment issues over the internet would be.

      Simply put, natural rights and originalism are insufficient ways of dealing with modern society’s problems. Economic analysis, through internalizing externalities, is the way to maximize our benefits.

  13. Regarding Jim Otteson’s comment on how Europe free-rides on the US, this isn’t just in terms of medical research. I recall someone once saying you can have a welfare state or a military budget, but not both. Europe was able to free-ride for the decades of the Cold War on the US for security, thus was able to erect welfare states. Now the U.S. will soon be faced with the classic choice of guns or butter. We can’t have national health insurance and all the other transfer programs and a military capable of defending our shores, much less extending its reach overseas (for better or worse).

  14. Misterxroboto:

    “the college graduate, and the rest of us benefit (the very nature of economic activity is competition). the college graduate has positive externalities as a result of a better education.

    subsequently, if the college graduate pays the full cost of education, it is we who are the free riders.”

    The main benefit to a college graduate is his own success which is not by any means guaranteed. To say society as a whole benefits off the success of the college grad is only to say that individuals who possess something the college grad wants and is willing to trade the product of his labor for will *potentially* benefit. The previous passage seems to dismiss the concept of property rights and the trader principle at work here. In fact, it could be correctly said that the college grad only benefits because other individual members of society possess things he wants or desires and is willing to trade for. Either way, trade in society is not dependent on the amount of college graduates present. Were it not for “society” the college grad would not have an opportunity to be considered monetarily “successful” therefore individuals in society have no obligation to subsidize the college student’s education.

    1. “The main benefit to a college graduate is his own success which is not by any means guaranteed.”

      This is not an objection to my point, it actually proves it nicely. the *main* benefit is to the college graduate. There are several other externalities.

      “To say society as a whole benefits off the success of the college grad is only to say that individuals who possess something the college grad wants and is willing to trade the product of his labor for will *potentially* benefit. ”

      One does not have to directly interact with that college graduate to benefit from it. Having a higher density of college graduates in this area makes Research Triangle Park more viable. Having RTP here makes other employers, who cater to the businesses in RTP, more viable.

      I don’t have to interact with a Duke graduate (thankfully, tongue in cheek) to benefit from his presence here.

      To show a different example in the same light, see my cement factory comment above.

      Assume that I buy a large plot of land nearby and do not interact with you directly to do it. You do not own the land and previously had no relationship with what was there.

      I build a cement factory that pollutes the air around your area, and makes a lot of noise. This is all on my property and I am exercising my natural rights.

      Using your criteria, you are unaffected by this because I have no interaction with you. You and I never meet, you are just impacted by my activity.

      It’s exactly why carbon taxes make sense alongside public education subsidies. We must pay the full price for our behavior and compensate those we harm. Conversely, if we benefit, we should expect to pay.

      1. Misterxroboto, your view here seems to treat positive externalities and negative externalities as due similar treatment. The education case is one in which the college graduate gets the main benefits, but there are lots of positive externalities to others, and your argument is that it is appropriate for them to bear some of the costs on that basis. The pollution case is one in which the plant gets the main benefits of its productive activities, but there are lots of negative externalities to others, and your argument is that is appropriate for the plant to compensate them for this.

        But we should have very different attitudes towards positive and negative externalities. Negative externalities we should want as little of as possible. They represent a cost, against some baseline of expectations, that is imposed upon us at the will of someone else, without our control or permission. But positive externalities are things we should be delighted to see proliferate. In fact, one way to think of the “productive surplus” that cooperation famously produces is as the compilation of lots of positive externalities. As others have noticed, positive externalities are not just a fact of life, but a fact of life we should be glad to have occur.

        In fact, the only reason to worry about them is when there are not sufficient positive internalities to motivate the conduct which is producing all these peachy effects. That would be the case in the education example if there were not enormously powerful positive internalities to college education already. But there are. It doesn’t need further incentivizing, and it’s not unjust for others to enjoy the external benefits, any more than it is unjust to enjoy any good that comes your way at the choice of another person. If they use their life, powers, and resources to make you better off, that’s something to be glad about. It is, literally, a win-win situation. That is simply not the case with negative externalities, and treating them as on par seems to me quite mistaken.

        If, conversely, we lived in a world in which anything we did which benefited others established an entitlement to compensation from them, we’d live in a radically different, and unimaginably worse, moral world.

      2. Mark, I’d disagree with your assessment that positive externalities don’t call for regulation to “internalize” them, if you will. Quantities are set on the margin, which means there must exist a group of prospective college attendees who decide that attending college isn’t worth the price, but who would, if the external benefits were “internalized” to them, decide to attend.

      3. Peter, I’d think any attempt to regulate positive externalities in this way would itself have both positive and negative externalities. Externalities we will always have with us. As Roger points out, there are positive externalities to just about any useful or productive activity. It makes no sense to try to internalize them in general, and the case of college educations is no different. If it’s a public goods issue with a problem of undersupply, that’s one thing. But there’s no argument that a college education is a public good in that sense. There is certainly no problem with benefits of a college education being sufficient to motivate people to seek college degrees; there is if anything a surfeit of people in college who could really be more productive doing something else.

  15. Four comments.

    First, it is doubtful that compulsory subscription to health care helps everybody equally. In fact, the unhealthy are helped at the expense of the healthy, the old at the expense of the young, the dissolute and imprudent at the expense of the clean living and disciplined, and so on. Naturally, those who expect to benefit most will prefer it but that is not a reason for others to do so. Insurance being what it is, some (not all) who do not benefit directly will get theirs back eventually, but only if the system survives long enough for the table to turn, which is doubtful. Most of us do benefit from living around healthy people; but it has yet to be proved that governmental care makes more people healthier. What most obviously does that is greater wealth. As a general rule, richer societies are healthier; but government management is not the way to a richer society.

    Second, the declaration that charity is a duty is questionable use of language. Charity is a loving gift, so not eligible for coercion, which perverts it. Even if it is a moral duty for some Christians, why it must be made into a legal duty by government is not clear.

    Third, a feeling of duty is one thing, a duty another. You can feel a duty and not have it, or have it and not feel it. Guilt might sometimes be a sign of neglected duty, but not always.

    Fourth, that you probably have a moral duty to help a deserving person you know to be in need does not mean that the government should require all of us to help perfect strangers, many of whom may, for all we can know, not deserve our aid and, in the end, may not benefit from it. Moral duties are more effectively enforced in informal ways by one’s friends, family, and fellows. That, after all, is how these duties were created.

  16. Health care actually has two very distinct components:

    1. the more general scientific knowledge about human health that is freely accessible by anyone as part of the social commons

    2. the labor required to deliver a health care service based on specialized scientific knowledge protected by government granted privilege.

  17. OK, fine, agreed already, let’s stop calling healthcare a right.

    Now let’s talk about whether or not we want to live in a society where those that can’t afford healthcare are turned down for treatment. Whatever lofty principles may underpin such a society, it’s not one I want to live in.

  18. I agree with @John – I don’t think it’s a “right”, but I don’t want to live someplace where people die of easily, and cheaply preventable diseases.

    In any case, “Europe is on an unsustainable fiscal trajectory” is not quite right because “Europe” is a variety of countries, many of which are doing quite well.

    Also, if health care spending is what’s causing problems, the US has *worse problems* than Europe, because the US spends *more* on health care as a percentage of GDP. That, despite not providing for everyone.

    What’s actually causing problems for some European countries are pension systems that haven’t adapted (people retiring at 58 and living till 90), rigid labor laws, and things like that. Not health care. Sure, that does cost money, but not an inordinate amount.

  19. Who, given the existence of Medicaid, is being refused what treatment because he cannot afford to pay for it? And why is he unable to pay for it?

  20. What about free speech. Is that my right? Who has a duty to provide it.

    One reason the U. S. spends a higher percentage of its GDP on health care is because it spends a lot less of things such as food and housing than many countries.

    1. @Max – Your “right” to free speech does not impose a “duty” on anyone or anything. The Constitution is a document of negation. First Amendment says simply that the government does not have the “right” to limit your speech. The term “right” is not used in the text(of the first amendment). It is used only as a basic description in the title of the main document.

      1. That Lou has a constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of speech means that we and the government have duty not to limit Lou’s speech in forbidden ways, and the government has the duty to prevent us from doing so. If it does not mean that, it means nothing.

      2. Max, I’d think that wouldn’t be quite right as a constitutional guarantee of free speech. None of us has any right to limit Lou’s speech in the first place. More explicitly, we have rights to use our property as we wish, and so does Lou, and if Lou wishes to use himself, his time, his property, and so on in the service of “speech,” none of us is entitled to do so. But that’s not because of a guarantee of free speech, it’s because none of us is entitled to interfere with Lou in the first place, except where it comes to the use of our own property. And here the constitutional guarantee doesn’t change anything either, so far as I can see.

        The only normative change that guarantee marks is the lack of authority of Congress or the federal government to exercise its powers to limit Lou’s speech. And nobody has to provide it. On the other hand, it’s on all our heads to see that that obligation is fulfilled.

  21. Mark. I can’t agree that x’s having a right to freedom of speech just means that y lacks a right to prevent x from speaking. I’m not even sure what that would mean. When the Constitution forbids congress to make laws abridging speech, it presumably isn’t just saying congress lacks the right to pass such laws; it is imposing on congress the duty to refrain from passing them. If it isn’t doing that, what is the point?

    1. Max, I’m not sure that we are not talking past each other here. What I’m thinking is that right to freedom of speech is a Hohfeldian liberty right rather than a Hohfeldian claim-right. Having a liberty right to X means that you have no obligation not to X; having a claim right against Y for X means that Y has an obligation to X.

      Compare that with my pencil, to which I have a claim-right against you. I can loan it to you but impose an obligation on you in doing so that you return it when I ask for it. My view (and I guess I thought this was the standard one) is that rights to free speech are not claim-rights in this sense.

      So construed, the right to freedom of speech means (i) that you have no obligation not to speak, and (ii) as a matter of Constitutional right, government may not obligate you not to speak. I think we probably agree on that. Where we differ, perhaps, was in what I took you to be suggesting, that “we” have a duty not to limit others’ speech.

      Suppose you plan to speak on the street corner with my PA system. I do have a claim right that you use the PA system in ways I approve of, and I have the right to demand that you not use it for your speech, even if that counts as “limiting” your speech. But that’s where my claim-right ends, and if I try further to keep you from speaking, I am the one who begins violating obligations. I think that such duties as we have in this way fall in with our general duties not to interfere with others when they do not wrong others. I wouldn’t be entitled to make you shut up whether there were a First Amendment or not, and when it was ratified, the game was changed (perhaps) only for government, not for the citizens in their obligations to each other. Conversely, I’m entitled to control the use of the PA, and that is true First Amendment or not.

  22. Mark, I can see a verbal distinction between your not having a right to interfere with my speech and your having a duty to refrain from interfering with it; but despite the authority of Hohfeld, I can see no real distinction in it. In day to day speech, if I say “You have no right to do that,” I am claiming that you have a duty to refrain from doing it. That you have no duty to listen or provide me with a forum does not prove anything to the contrary. Nor does the fact that there are limitations on my freedom of speech. Granted, I’m not allowed to disturb the peace, or cry “Fire!” in a crowded theater, or defame you. Still, given whatever limitations there are , you and others have a duty, so long as I stay within those limitations, not to interfere. Thus, despite the belief of some of my students, there is no right to steal the campus newspaper because you disapprove of its contents, or remove the campaign placards of students you don’t want elected to campus office; indeed, there is a duty to refrain from these activities. Maybe the verbal problem is that negative duties do not seem to some people to be duties at all; but they are are the other side of the coin of liberty.

  23. Well, let’s try this, since I think we are talking past each other a bit. Let’s forget about rights (especially since everyday usage conflates the moral categories abysmally) and just talk about duties, if you don’t like Hohfeld’s taxonomy. We certainly can distinguish between (i) a duty not to do x and (ii) the absence of a duty to do x. That’s all that’s necessary to establish the necessary distinction. Now consider my obligations with respect to X, where X is my interfering with your speech. One possibility is that I have a duty to X. Let’s toss that one. So I have no duty to X. I could also have no duty not to X. Or I might have a duty not to X. Those are all distinct possibilities.

    But I am not arguing that I have no duty not to X. What I am claiming is that there’s nothing special about your speech in that. I have a duty not to X where X is interfering with what you do period. That your general right, and my general duty, to non-interference. Of course, that right and that duty is bounded in important ways. But there’s nothing special about my interfering with your speech as opposed to my interfering with you in limitless other ways. You get to do what you will with yourself and your stuff, within bounds that have nothing in particular to do with speech. Not only can I not steal your papers because I disagree with your contents, I also cannot steal your water bottle because I like the design. All these are ways in which we have duties to respect the liberty of others. I’m pretty sure you and I are in agreement on that point.

    That’s why I say the First Amendment doesn’t do anything to change the normative relationship between you and me. I have that duty First Amendment or no. (In fact, I have that duty even if the First Amendment says I don’t. Then it’s just a bad law.) I take it we are in agreement over the existence of the duty. We disagree over the explanation of that duty, with you claiming that somehow it is grounded in First Amendment protections, and my claiming that it is grounded in general duties of non-interference.

    The point isn’t I think negative vs. positive duties or rights (I don’t have much confidence in that distinction). The point is that our relations as individual agents aren’t changed by Constitutional statutes; they are governed by the basic tapestry of duties of non-interference, respect for property, and the like that are in some form pre-political. Not so for Constitutional guarantees; they establish de novo the relations between the State and its citizens. That’s precisely the work the US Constitution does.

  24. Mark, speech was just the example.

    The general point is that rights and duties are correlatives: person x has a right R if and only if some other person y has duty D. Thus, that my wife has a right to my fidelity means that I have a duty to be faithful. That Jones has a right to criticize his government means that the government has a duty to refrain from arresting him when he does. Etc.

    I am aware that some people have used words differently. Hobbes said people in a state of nature have a right to do anything they want, including kill or enslave each other; also, that they owe no duties to each other. But Hobbes’s claim seems to me to have been a misleading way of saying merely that, where there was no power to stop them, people were at liberty to do anything they could get away with. But this idea has many things wrong with it.

    The basis for rights and duties is a separate question. I happen to think that rights are rooted in social conventions. That we have a constitutional right to freedom of speech means that the Constitution conferred it on us. You appear to think–with Jefferson and other founders–that rights are natural. The right to freedom of speech antedated the formation of society; the Constitution merely promises to protect it. I do not think the distinction matters here. If x has a natural right to say what she thinks, it is because the rest of us have a natural duty to let her.

    1. Max, first, I have no problem with the idea that rights and duties are correlatives. And I agree with you completely in your account of what it is to say that x has a natural right to say what she thinks, though I am a bit squeamish about “natural” right because of all the different uses that concept gets burdened with; that’s why I went with “pre-political instead.”

      So after all that, I think the only possible point of disagreement (and I’m not even sure about that) is the work of the Constitution in creating rights (and correlative duties) to speak freely. I took you to be saying that it changed the landscape between individuals — perhaps imposing a duty on individuals not to interfere with speech where none was before. That was really the idea I was resisting, but now I’m thinking I likely misunderstood you. My thought it that it fixes duties on the State, and just on the State (not on individuals) , not to interfere with speech. I’m not sure whether you agree, but I think if you don’t it wouldn’t be for reasons fundamental to our understandings of rights and duties.

  25. Mark, thanks for the clarification, which does indeed leave us in agreement. As you say, the Bill of Rights is aimed at limiting the state. My misunderstanding.

  26. Health care is a right for every individual irrespective of the age and race,every individual has a right to life,and govt is saddled with the duty of providing good hospitals and health care facilities.

  27. With due respect, your interpretation of what has come to be called the “corelativity of rights and duties” is a misread,as a little research into this theory reveals. More often argued, is whether this theory has moral grounding. However, to illustrated the theory philosophers often use the example: if Bob is owed $10 by Sam than Sam has a duty to pay it. Therein lies the correlation. Also, research will reveal it was not yet a fully-developed theory even by the early 1990s but that those who either defend or oppose it agree with the example cited to illustrate how is supposedly works. I have my own ideas of how it should be interpreted, but that would take too long to address here. Suffice to say I do not believe the correlation lies in the opposing direction, but with the person excising the right and that the corresponding correlation is to his duty to excersize said right responsibly. But again, articulating that would take far too long here.

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