restricted access The Moral Foundation of Rights
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MORAL FOUNDATION OF RIGHTS 563 But this play is empty, and not even 'free: For the question ofbeing, as Heidegger asks it, is integral to the question of technology: what is man and what will he have to become to stand up to the demands ofthe technological age? Does poetry, moreover, in however slight a form, offer the possibility of a non-objectifying and hence non-technical way of thought? The undoubted values of his individual analyses aside, Fynsk's book is another indication that the premisses of deconstruction systematicaUy block access to these questions. The Moral Foundation of Rights JAN NARVESON L.W. Sumner. The Moral Foundation of Rights Clarendon Press 1987. 224. $61.95 The author, long-time professor ofPhilosophy at the University ofToronto, is one of the day's noted proponents of the Utilitarian theory of ethics. Rights, as he notes, have long been thought a stumbling block for such a theory, and here he sets forth a sort of prolegomenon to a Utilitarian theory of rights. Consequentialism , of which Utilitarianism is a species, tells us that the general criterion of right and wrong is maximization of the general good under some specification (such as happiness, or in general, Utility, or some pattern of goods). Yet it is widely supposed that rights protect those who have them in such a way that they cannot be 'sacrificed' to the general good. Ifit would be better for lots ofothers thatyou be thrown to the wolves, we think that nevertheless you ought not to be so used: to do so would be in violation of your rights. But wouldn't a theory telling us to do whatever is for the general good justify us, then, in throwing you to them in such cases? And can such a theory have a place for rights as we understand them? Without attempting to defend the Utilitarian theory in particular, Sumner here offers up an analysis of rights to show that consequentialism can indeed make room for them. It is certainly a serious effort in that direction, useful even for those, such as this writer, who had little doubt that what Sumner proposes to do can be done. Whether the niche thus carved out for rights is sufficient to accommodate them is another matter. Much of the book is devoted to an exceedingly careful, detailed analysis of the set of concepts associated with rights. It is masterly, indeed virtuoso expositionnot easy reading for the lay person or even the trained philosopher, but amply rewarding. Having entered the mansion of rights theories and found it a proper mess, he leaves it, a hundred pages later, in lovely order, with cubby holes for everything, induding a few spares for future developments and, not surprisingly, a couple of neat shelves for the desired consequentialist option. Sumner follows the now familiar analysis according to which rights are identified with protections, in particular protected choices, under a set of rules. These rules can be conventional, as in the law; but then we can raise the question whether a given set of conventions could be improved. We can talk about the 564 JAN NARVESON conyentions we should have as opposed to those we do have. This, in Sumner's (and my) view, is the province of moral theory. Sumner devotes two chapters to what he takes to be the two principal rivals to a consequentialist type of theory - natural law theory and contractarianism. The former he finds objectionable on the very plausible ground that the idea of something that is both 'natural' and yet a rule makes little sense; yet absent a rule, how is talk of rights to get any normative grip on us? The latter, on the other hand, looks much more promising, since an agreement will certainly generate a rule. But can contractarianism really come up with the sort of universal, broad-gauged agreement that would be necessary to generate a plausible schedule of strong human rights, rights for aU and sundry? Sumner argues that in order to do so, it must impose conditions on the alleged 'agreement' that lose the initial advantage of normativeness: the Social Contract turns outto bean 'agreement' that we didn't make...