The Realm of Rights

The Realm of Rights

by Judith Jarvis Thomson, Judith J. Thomson
     
 

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

Overview

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.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal - Library Journal
Thomson argues forcefully that rights form a basic part of morality, then sets forward the main rights that people have. Her method proceeds by the ingenious examples for which she is famous, and her cases depend on appeals to moral judgments that she deems obvious. Some philosophers attack this approach on the ground that common-sense beliefs are not enough for a proper theory, but Thomson mounts a sharp counterattack. After defending her philosophical method, she applies it to a careful definition of rights that refines the standard analysis of philosopher Wesley Hohfeld. She challenges the view that the aim of morality is to maximize value, the principal doctrine of those who reject rights. Thomson places great stress on First Property, each person's ownership of his or her own body. Second Property--ownership of things besides one's body--she maintains is largely the artifact of a society's legal system. This gracefully written book excels in pene trating analysis. Highly recommended.--David Gordon, Bowling Green State Univ., Ohio

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780674749481
Publisher:
Harvard University Press
Publication date:
11/28/1990
Pages:
396
Product dimensions:
6.49(w) x 9.59(h) x 1.36(d)

What People are saying about this

Michael Walzer
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.
Michael Walzer, The Institute for Advanced Study
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.
Joel Feinberg
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.
Joel Feinberg, University of Arizona
Stephen L. Darwall
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.
Stephen L. Darwall, University of Michigan
Gilbert Harman
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.
Gilbert Harman, Princeton University

Meet the Author

Judith Jarvis Thomson is Professor of Philosophy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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