Rights as Powers to Fulfill Duties

Edward Feser says in his blog in 2020

But the Scholastic argument for natural rights (in the sense of subjective rights) is that if I am obligated to act in a certain way under natural law, then I must have a right in the sense of a power or liberty to do so. I must be able to make a moral claim against others that they not interfere with my actions in that particular respect.

Good point. Rights COME from duties. I have the duty as a good citizen to tell people that the governor is breaking the law. Thus, everyone else has a duty to let me speak. That is equivalent to me having the right to speak. Rights do not exist for my pleasure; they exist for my work. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are rights to the extent that being alive, free, and able to use the talents God gave me are necessary to fulfill the job God gave me.

This is nice because it makes sense of the word “rights”, and an account of the origin of rights. The leading explanations for them are (1) rights are a form of property, the result of tradition (which is historical and does not apply everywhere in the world), and (2) rights are labels we put on basic rules convenient for maximizing utility (which does pretty well at explaining them).

A problem with the Duties theory is that the vast majority of people do not use most of their rights to fulfill their duties, because they don’t fulfill their duties. How many people use their free speech to say unpopular things to power? How many use their freedom of religion to evangelize? How many use freedom of the press to write op-eds? But I guess we’d still say people have those rights, because we’d still say they have those duties even if they fail in them.

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