The concept of a right is fundamental to moral, political, and legal thinking, but much of the use of that concept is selective and fragmentary: it is common merely to appeal to this or that intuitively plausible attribution of rights as needed for purposes of argument. In The Realm of Rights Judith Thomson provides a full-scale, systematic theory of human and social rights, bringing out what in general makes an attribution of a right true.
Thomson says that the question what it is to have a right precedes the question which rights we have, and she therefore begins by asking why our having rights is a morally significant fact about us. She argues that a person’s having a right is reducible to a complex moral constraint: central to that constraint is that, other things being equal, the right ought to be accorded. Thomson asks what those other things are that may or may not be equal, and describes the tradeoffs that relieve us of the requirement to accord a right.
Our rights fall into two classes, those we have by virtue of being human beings and those we have by virtue of private interactions and law. Thomson argues that the first class includes rights that others not kill or harm us, but does not include rights that others meet our needs. The second class includes rights that issue from promises and consent, and Thomson shows how they are generated; she also argues that property rights issue only from a legitimate legal system, so that the second class includes them as well.
The Realm of Rights will take its place as a major effort to provide a stable foundation for our deeply held belief that we are not mere cogs in a communal machine, but are instead individuals whose private interests are entitled to respect.
Thomson offers a painstaking analysis of rights… [She] then works from…the right to bodily integrity…to establish the contours of rights to liberty, rights arising out of promises, and more general property rights… This is a wonderful, deep, and engaging book. It surely deserves to become, as it surely will become, the origin of much more important discussion of ideas about rights.
This book isn’t only about rights; it is also about thinking about rights. Thomson works her way through to a comprehensive account of what our rights are (and aren’t: she is wonderfully resistant to rights extravaganzas). She also shows us, with elegance and wit, how to do this sort of work: what a philosophical argument is, how one shapes an argument and makes it stick, and why the enterprise is so engaging.
A great book. It offers a sustained account of rights and will be the standard work on rights. Thomson’s book is more straightforward and much less speculative than, for example, Rawls or Dworkin. Thomson has a very distinctive, attractive voice. The text has a real personality. This is where future work on rights must start.
What I like most about this work is Thomson’s faithfulness to nuance and detail in aid of clarifying what can accurately be said about her cases at the most general level. In this connection, her discussions of the relation between compensation and the residue of rights, the question of the ‘absoluteness’ of rights, and alleged moral dilemmas are especially good examples of how she cuts through the many confusions that have surrounded these topics by razor-sharp treatment of cases.
The book presents and defends a systematic normative ethical theory built on the structure of a rights theory. Thomson is at home in these subjects, and her discussion here is masterful. She has few equals at the deft and imaginative manipulation of generalizations and counterexamples.
- 400 pages
- 5-15/16 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
From this author
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