Old Problems, New Possibilities
Edited by David Kinley, Wojciech Sadurski and Kevin Walton
Chapter 2: Human rights as moral rights
For declarations of natural rights, Jeremy Bentham had nothing but disdain. He denounced them as gibberish. He decried their likely impact on government, too. Assertions of legal rights made intellectual and political sense to him, since they could be traced to the specific commands of particular sovereigns. But all other statements of rights, which seemed to invoke elusive laws of nature, he found both absurd and politically troubling. Although he was willing to construe them as bungling attempts to indicate rights that ought to exist, he insisted that they neither could nor should be understood as claims about actual rights. He was adamant: That there are no such things as natural rights – no such things as rights anterior to the establishment of government – no such things as natural rights opposed to, in contradistinction to, legal: that the expression is merely figurative; that when used in the moment you attempt to give it a literal meaning it leads to error, and to that sort of error that leads to mischief – to the extremity of mischief. Despite Bentham’s forceful attack on non-legal rights, I argue briefly here that human rights can be moral rights. My argument focuses on Tom Campbell’s reiteration, in his contribution to this volume and elsewhere, of Bentham’s critique. I start by comparing the conception of rights, including human rights, that Campbell favours with two others that are prominent in the contemporary literature.
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