steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

Droit and double droit

This afternoon I washed dishes to the sound of another interesting Radio 4 programme. This time it was a group of lawyers and philosophers arguing about rights, and how far they extend. We can agree that humans have rights, sure - but animals? And, if we're talking animals, should we distinguish between the rights of individual animals and those of entire species, such as the right not to be made extinct? Does the degree of sentience have a bearing? (But then, a species qua species isn't sentient.) What about the rights of plants, or of robots?

Much of this was familiar, but it reminded me that I find the whole concept of rights curiously unsatisfactory. I can't honestly see what they're for. Or rather, since I don't want to come across as shockingly illiberal, I don't see what the concept of rights brings to moral discourse that isn't already adequately covered by the concept of duty. What does the sentence "This woman has a right to life" add to the sentence "One should not kill this woman"? The former has a more positive "spin" as it were, but isn't the net effect equivalent?

Using the discourse of duty still leaves all the important problems unsolved, of course. Instead of asking how far rights extend, or what we should do when rights conflict, the same questions are repackaged in terms of what duties we have, and what to do when we have conflicting duties. All the same, I've always felt more at home with the idea that the morality of my actions is determined by my doing what I ought to do, rather than successfully negotiating a set of rights that are "out there" waiting to be potentially infringed. I feel more as if I own my actions when I think of it that way.

I'm no philosopher, as anyone can see, but I'd be interested to know if I'm alone in feeling like that. And also - does anyone have a simple account of how and why the discourse of duty came to be at least partially supplanted by the discourse of rights? (I'm guessing it's an Enlightenment kinda thing.) In what ways was duty found wanting? And how did we end up with this strange belt-and-braces morality?
Tags: maunderings
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