Handbook of Economics and Ethics
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Handbook of Economics and Ethics

Edited by Jan Peil and Irene van Staveren

The Handbook of Economics and Ethics portrays an understanding of economic methodology in which facts and values, though distinct, are closely interconnected in a variety of ways. From theory building to data collection, and from modelling to policy evaluation, this encyclopaedic Handbook is at the intersection of economics and ethics.
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Chapter 59: Rights

Stephen D. Parsons


Stephen D. Parsons A considerable variety of discourses today appeal to the idea of rights. However, such appeals are as problematic as they are ubiquitous. Examples of humankind’s recourse to the idea of rights are the 1789 document called the Declaration of the Rights of Man produced following the French Revolution, the series of amendments added to the US Constitution in 1791 known as the Bill of Rights, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948. Alluding to the problematic status rights can have, MacIntyre asserts ‘there are no (human) rights and belief in them is one with belief in unicorns and witches’ (MacIntyre 1981, p. 67). Hausman and McPherson (2006, p. 165) offer three reasons why rights are important in economics. First, clear definitions and demarcations of rights, especially property rights, promotes economic efficiency. For example, North and Thomas (1973) argued that the assignment of clearly defined property rights to intellectual inventions stimulates intellectual innovation. Second, rights, again especially property rights, are frequently taken as a ‘starting point’ in economic analyses. Hence, investigations into the distributional properties of different economic arrangements often begin from a given allocation of property rights. Third, rights are frequently invoked in order to limit the pursuit of economic goals. For example, even if child labour were economically efficient, it is widely regarded as contravening the rights of children. One consequence of the particular significance of property rights in economics is that certain authors distinguish between these rights and...

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