The term “rights” is widely misunderstood. It will be helpful here to distinguish between moral and legal rights. These classes of rights are similar in at least one respect: in both cases, a right protects a person’s interest by providing that person with a claim against any party who interferes with the satisfaction of the person’s protected interest.
Let’s look at an example in which a person is protected by both kinds of rights.
Person A is an average human being whose interest in continuing to live we can hopefully agree is important enough that it should not be arbitrarily ignored by any other person. When we say that Person A has “a right to live,” we are more or less stating that Person A’s interest in continued existence is protected by a “claim” against any person and/or actions that would prevent Person A from continuing to live. Another way of looking at this is that the right protecting Person A’s interest in continued existence imposes a duty on other people not to ignore this interest.
Of course, there are limitations on this protection. If Person A attempts to kill another person, then most people would not object to the other party defending herself with lethal force, or to Person A being shot and killed by an officer of the law. Person A’s interest in continuing to live has not evaporated, but his actions have provided appropriate justification for ignoring that interest.
With this example in mind, let’s take a look at the difference between legal and moral rights.
The law identifies that certain interests ought to be protected, even if infringing upon those interests would serve the interests of another person, or the interests of the greater good. When a person’s legal right is violated by another party, then the right provides the person with a justified legal claim against the violating party.
Valid legal claims can lead to various legal sanctions against the violating party, including financial penalties and/or imprisonment. Legal rights are generally codified and enforced by a political institution, such as a government, and they are held by certain entities functioning as legal “persons,” such as humans and corporations.
Moral rights derive from objective morality, not from governmental authority. They can be understood to have approximately the same logical structure as legal rights, but they are not backed up with the same sort of protection offered by legal rights. However, the claim a person has against another party who infringes upon a moral right is no less valid. Consequences for violating moral rights can range from a personal demand for an apology to being ostracized by one’s community.
The relationship between moral and legal rights
Moral rights and legal rights are distinctly different, but they are closely related. We can think of a moral right as an underlying, pre-legal form of a right. Whatever moral rights a being holds will ideally (if not now, at least some day) be reflected in the legal system. For instance, our moral right to liberty is reflected in our legal right to that liberty. As public opinions about right and wrong shift, laws generally evolve along with them. Humans enslaved in the United States before 1865 had the same basic moral rights as every other human, but these moral rights were not reflected in the law until the 13th Amendment was passed.
It is possible for legal rights to clash with moral rights. For example, some animal rights advocates believe that all sentient beings have at least one basic moral right: the right not to be treated exclusively as a resource by others. This moral right conflicts directly with the morally indefensible legal right humans have to own nonhumans.
A right typically does not need to be understood by someone who possesses that right in order to receive its protection. For example, the interests of children and mentally incompetent persons are protected by rights. Claims to these rights can usually be made on their behalf.
Because nonhuman animals are legally classified as property instead of persons, they cannot possess legal rights.
In my next post, I will describe animal rights. It will be helpful to keep in mind the above discussion as we consider what interests nonhuman animals have.
Next post: Animal Rights
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