Research Seminar

Laura Valentini: There Are No Natural Rights: Rights, Duties and Positive Norms

Date: 27 April
Time: 10:00–12:00

Laura Valentini, Associate Professor of Political Science at London School of Economics

Many contemporary philosophers—of a broadly deontological disposition—believe that there exist some pre-institutional “natural” rights. To be sure, they disagree about how rich the set of natural rights is. Some defend a rather capacious list, including both negative rights to liberty and positive rights to goods and services. Others suggest, more modestly, that only negative rights would exist in a hypothetical state of nature. But hardly anyone seems to hold the view that there exist no natural rights. In this paper, I defend this unpopular view. I argue that all rights are grounded in positive norms—namely, norms constituted by the collective acceptance of gives “oughts”—, provided the norms’ content meets some independent standards of moral acceptability. This view, I suggest, does justice to the relational nature of rights, by explaining how it is that right-holders acquire the authority to demand certain actions (or omissions) from duty-bearers. Furthermore, the view does not divest human beings of fundamental moral protections. Even if, absent some rights-grounding positive norms, obligations cannot be owed to others, we still have natural (non-directed) duties placing constraints on how we may permissibly treat one Another.

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