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This is an essay about rights and how to think about them. I want to make three points:

(1) Rights are confusing;

(2) Duties are less confusing;

(3) The only way to explain what a right is, is to say exactly what duties people have.

What is a right?

Many people disagree on the answer. But most answers have some things that are the same:

1. A right is something that someone has. People say things like “my right”, “her right”, “his right”. Even though people have rights, you cannot touch a right. A word for this is intangible. Rights are intangible because they are not the same kind of thing that a table or a ball is. So what is a right?

2. A right is a claim, which is something that a person deserves for themselves, or deserves from others. It can be a claim to something, like an apple. It can also be a claim to someone doing something to you, like someone giving you medical care. Or it can be a claim to someone not doing something to you, like someone not punching you. People say things like “I have a right to that apple” and “I have a right to medical care” and “I have a right to not be punched”.

3. A right can be violated by another person. Even though someone has a right, it’s possible that another person could ignore or not even know about that right, and do something different from what the right seems to say they should do. For example, someone can eat your apple, not give you medical care, or punch you in the face.

right is a claim that one person has, and that another person could violate.

Who has rights? And when and why and how?

When does someone have rights? For how long? Can someone gain rights? Lose rights? People often disagree on the answers to these questions. If a man is captured as a slave, some people say that he loses some rights. Other people say that he doesn’t lose rights, it’s just that the people that enslaved him are violating his rights. Some people think that rights can be taken away from people if they do something wrong, or that people who do wrong things give up some of their rights. Some people say that rights can never be taken away or lost. Some people say no one has all of their rights until they are an adult. Some people say everyone gains rights at birth. Some people say that fetuses in a womb have rights. These are some of the many answers people give. There are many more.

Are there different kinds of rights? 

One way of thinking about different kinds of rights is to think of who has rights. People talk about human rights, animal rights, women’s rights, states rights, American rights, children’s rights, the rights of the unborn. Let’s call these holder-rights, because we are naming them based on who holds the rights. Are there different holder-rights? Do women have different rights than men? Adults than children? Humans than animals? Cows than dogs? These are all important questions to answer about rights. Again, many people disagree on the answers. If you think of any two different types of possible right-holders and compare them, you will probably find some people that say these two have the same rights, and some people that say they have different rights, and some people that say one or both of those holders actually have no rights at all.

Another way of thinking about kinds of rights is to think of where rights come from. People talk about natural rights which come from nature, divine rights which come from a divine source like god, civil rights which come from civilization, social rights which come from society, legal rights which come from the law, constitutional rights which come from the United States Constitution, and more. Let’s call these source-rights, because we are naming them based on what source they come from. People disagree much on this too. Some think that rights only come from one source, and others think rights come from many different sources. For example, some people think that there are some god-given rights but that people also give themselves legal rights by passing laws. But, some other people think that we only get rights from god, and others think that we only get rights from the law.

There are more ways of thinking about kinds of rights. These are just two.

Rights are confusing.

When I say that I have a right to my apple, what does that mean? When I say that I have a right to some number of apples every year what does that mean? Or a right to dignity? Exactly what is that? Rights are brought up to answer questions about what people should or should not do to, or do for, one another. Rights are used to answer some questions about what’s good or bad. When people talk about rights, they often connect them with ideas like moralityethicsjusticefairness, and equality. Rights are used to try to talk about all these important things, and to come to conclusions and agreements so that we can live together well. Rights are always about actions. Rights try to explain what people shoud or should not do. This is confusing, because when we talk about someone’s rights, we are really talking about other people at the same time. Is there a better way to talk about this?

What are duties?

When we talk about rights we are always talking about what people should or should not do. If someone says “Alice has a right to an apple”, then people think this means many different things. Some people think it means that no one else should eat the apple that Alice already has. Some people think it means that other people should provide Alice with an apple. Some people thinks it means that other people should teach Alice how to pick apples. There are many things that people call rights, and no matter what you call a right people will disagree about what that means exactly. But what everyone always means is that someone other than the right-holder should or should not do something. So, if Alice has a right, what we mean is that Carl, or Debra, or maybe everybody, should or should not do a certain thing. If a person should or should not do something, this is called a duty. If James has a duty to give medical care to Alice, we mean that he should give medical care to Alice.

Duties are similar to rights in many ways. This makes sense, because both ideas are trying to talk about many of the same things. A right is a claim that one person has,that another person can violate. What about duties?

1. A duty is also something that someone hasholds, or possesses. People say things like “my duty”, “her duty”, “his duty”. Just like rights, duties are not material things, they are also intangible. So, what is a duty?

2. A duty is an obligation. An obligation is always about actions. You can be obligated to do or not do something. One way to say this is that you should or should not do something. For example, Clay should clean his house, or Bob should not kick people, or Deonta should rescue a drowning person.

3. A duty can be violatedrefused, or ignored by its holder. (This is different from a right. Rights can only be violated by other people.) Even though someone has a duty, it’s possible that he could disregard that duty, and do something different from what the duty seems to say he should do.

When a person has an obligation that he can violate, then this obligation is called aduty.

Rights and duties are two ways of thinking about what people should do. If one person has a right, this always mean that at least one other person has a duty.

Duties are confusing too.

People ask some of same questions about duties that they ask about rights. When does someone have duties? For how long? Can someone gain duties? Lose duties? Just like with rights, people disagree on the answers to these questions too.

Are there different kinds of duties? Just like rights, there are also many different kinds of duties. Earlier, I wrote about two kinds of rights: holder-rights and source-rights. We can also think about different kinds of duties in the same way: holder-duties and source-duties. People talk about women’s rights and women’s duties, civil rights and civil duties. Just like rights, people disagree about what kinds of duties there are.

Because of these disagreements duties can also be very confusing.

Duties are less confusing than rights.

Even with all the confusion about duties, they are less confusing than rights. Why? Take the example of Alice and the apple again. Alice has a right to an apple. What exactly does this mean? It’s unclear. The only way to try to make it clear is to say what other people should or should not do about Alice and about apples. So, the only way to make the right clear is to say exactly what duties people have. This is  always how it is. Even though there are many of the same disagreements about rights and duties, duties are the things we need to think and talk about if we want to understand rights. Even though thinking about duties can help us understand each other’s points, it cannot solve all the disagreements. But talking about duties can give us a better beginning for asking hard questions about how to live together well.

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