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Unpublished Paper
Rights as Fairness
  • James M Donovan

Edmundson characterizes the historical emergence of the idea of human rights out of the conceptual divergence between objective and subjective right, which he places in the Middle Ages. Objective right recognizes the justice of a given state of affairs. “Suppose I take St. Francis’ sandals without his permission. ‘Thou shalt not steal’—I have violated objective right, I have transgressed God’s commandment. But where does St. Francis come into the picture? We want to add, ‘St. Francis has a right to his sandals’” (Edmundson 2004, p. 9). He considers the appearance of this psychological foregrounding of the right-holder as a necessary precondition to saying that the idea of rights has appeared in a given society. Human rights would therefore not be a universal in the sense required by the moral picture, but are rather contingent on a particular relationship of persons within the culture. If we are to believe Hegel, it is the experience of private property that creates that image.

As an empirical matter, this model suggests that the idea of universal human rights will be most prevalent in contexts where private property ideologies predominate, and where the individual has emerged out of the social background as an entity of subjective awareness—again according to Hegel, a necessarily simultaneous happening. This in fact appears to be the case: human rights are often accused of being a “Western” idea, as opposed to more communitarian Asian cultural models that have not prioritized ownership by individuals to be same extent. Heretofore this divide has been a fact retrospectively accounted for with varying success; the present model, however, predicts the uneven distribution of human rights discourse in a way that does not disparage late-comers as being in some way morally retarded.

This has not been a simplistic claim that rights are economic claims, but only that the idea of a right follows from ways of thinking engrained by experience with economic exchanges. Transplanted from the material world of exchange to the ethical realm, one arrives at the basic idea of the “right.” The thesis that rights are an extension of the economics-based ideas of fairness, rather than the morally-grounded intuitions of justice, seems both well-founded and productive.

Publication Date
May, 2008
Citation Information
James M Donovan. "Rights as Fairness" (2008)
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