What are Rights? – an Excerpt from Journey toward Justice

The following is an excerpt from Journey toward Justice, by Nicholas Wolterstorff

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Cover ArtRights are ways of being treated that are required by respect for worth. You have a right to being treated a certain way by me just in case, were you not treated that way by me, you would be treated in a way that does not befit your worth, your dignity.

If torturing you is incompatible with treating you as befits your dignity as a person, then you have a right not to be tortured. If putting you up on the block for sale is incompatible with treating you as befits your dignity as a person, then you have a right not to be put up on the block for sale. If my giving you anything less than an A for the course would not befit your worth as someone who has done top-notch work, then you have a right to an A from me. And so forth.

Understanding what rights are requires distinguishing between, on the one hand, how well or poorly a person’s life is going—his well-being—and, on the other hand, the worth or value of that person himself. A truly admirable person may find that his life is going poorly; those are the Jobs of the world. Conversely, a person whose life is going very well may not be a very admirable person. This gives rise to the ancient complaint, why do the wicked prosper? The complaint presupposes a distinction between the worth or admirability of the person, and the worth or admirability of his life.

Rights represent the interweaving between, on the one hand, ways of being treated that would be a good in our lives, and, on the other hand, the worth that we ourselves have. The recognition of rights requires the recognition of ways of being treated that would be a good in our lives. But it requires, in addition, recognition of the worth, the dignity, the estimability of persons and human beings themselves.

Any ethical theory that works only with life-goods, and not also with the worth or dignity of persons or human beings, is incapable of giving an account of natural rights. One does not get rights by piling up life-goods. On the one hand, being given a Rembrandt painting to hang on my living room wall would be a great good in my life, but I do not for that reason have a right to that good. On the other hand, receiving a pleasant response from the receptionist would be a relatively small good in my life; nonetheless, I have a right to it.

©2013 by Nicholas Wolterstorff. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

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