Example Of The Social Importance Of Moral Rights By Joel Feinberg Essay

Type of paper: Essay

Topic: Morality, Ethics, Respect, Claim, People, World, Society, Human

Pages: 6

Words: 1650

Published: 2021/01/07


Humanity is a moral ideal that has been established depending on the pursuit of dignity for the human beings. In order to achieve human dignity, one has to apply the principles and norms of morality that eventually define the ways through which an individual in particular and the society in general can achieve a moral life. The world today is closely intertwined based upon ease in access of information which has led to the rising awareness of individual rights. There is a long list of appeals to rights including prisoners’ rights, animal rights, fetal rights, gay rights etc. etc. but with these rights comes the moral controversies that have been on a rise. A “right” is defined to be a “justified claim” of a person on others. For example, my right of education means that I have this justified claim of being educated by the society.
The justification of claim depends upon some standards that are fully accepted by the society in general. This paper tends to focus on how Joel Feinberg discusses the relation between rights and morality in his work. The philosopher uses an example of imaginary world to support his view that a society with no rights is actually handicapped morally as rights are directly related to the concept of self-respect and eventually have an association with morality. Initially the view of a prominent philosopher is discussed as his opinion plays a key role in the argument given by Feinberg.

Moral Rights by Kant

The most influential interpretation of moral rights has been done based upon the work of a great philosopher in the eighteenth century, Immanuel Kant. He stated that each individual has a dignity that others must respect. This dignity proves that nobody has a right to abuse us or even exploit us against out will. This idea has been expressed by Kant in a moral principle: “humanity must always be treated as an end, not merely as a means.” This means that using a person to achieve one’s own interest is to treat someone as a means. But when a person is treated as an end, the dignity of that person is being respected while the freedom to choose is also being given to the person. This principle is usually associated with the moral right of being free to choose oneself like right to privacy and to liberty. It is also used to support the welfare rights like freedom, education, food, healthcare and overall wellbeing. Whenever a moral dilemma rises, the rights of individuals must be given priority as per the views of Kant. So, he believes that rights play a key role in ethics and morality.

View of Feinberg

Feinberg tried to make an elusive point in his work which is not so easy to identify. Though, it seems crystal clear that he established a relation between the concept of rights and respect as a virtue. But the way in which this connection is being made requires the use of intuition extensively. The key idea that Feinberg delivered was that for in order to exhibit respect, human beings require rights as the basic prerequisite. This means that is someone is unaware of what the concept of right is, then, he/she would be unable to display respect as a consequence both to one’s own self and to others also. If this relationship exists then another assumption arises that rights can never be ignored when morality is taken into consideration. Hence, when the society is being evaluated morally, rights play the most significant role.
Feinberg’s idea is based on the “doctrine of the logical connectivity of rights and duties” which states that both the concepts of rights and duties cannot be separated. Whenever we discuss the rights of an individual, the fact is that we are also referring to the duties of others towards that individual. To further elaborate the idea, we would take into consideration the example given by Feinberg of the imaginary world below.


Feinberg named his imaginary world as Nowheresville. The people of Nowheresville are not aware of the concept of a right and hence do not have any either. According to Feinberg, initially this world seems to be too cruel to actually live in. but then, he starts the addition of certain features to the world that are present in the actual world except the existence of rights. To begin with, he added compassion and benevolence in this world although the people are not cruel. But then, he raises the matter of moral worth given by Kant which states that “no action can have supreme kind of worth unless its whole motivating power derives from the thought that it is required by duty.” If duty is induced, the doctrine of correlativity would follow so, he introduced the legal duties which means that people do not require being obedient to each other but they only require being obedient to the law. Therefore, each person is only obedient to the higher authority and not to any rights holder.
In the next step, Feinberg introduces personal desert and sovereign monopoly of rights. But again, the holders of individual rights do not exist. Desert is not like a right because one deserves something but cannot make claims. According to Feinberg, “that weaker kind of propriety which is mere desert is simply a kind of fittingness between one party’s character of action and another party’s favorable response.” For example, if someone cleans my house daily without me asking him, he would deserve to get compensated but is not entitled to. As there has never been an agreement, so, he cannot claim that he must be compensated but yes, he deserves to be paid by me.
The other practice of sovereign right-monopoly requires that in order to ensure the development of a moral/legal relationship, there must be at least three parties. In order to shed light on this idea, Feinberg used the Hobbes’s Leviathan’s subjects who had no rights against their monarch while the monarch had various duties regarding the subjects. But eventually, the correlative rights were owned by God and not by subjects. In the case of Nowheresville, there was no right at all even when the people were in the relationship whereas, in Leviathan, the relationships were built upon duties and hence there were some rights. In the case of three parties relation, Feinberg states that when two people enter into a legal contract, it is the duty of the debtor to pay the creditor money back but creditor has no right to demand the repayment as the rights are held by monarch or the higher authority who can only demand repayment.

Rights, Claims and Respect

The argument by Feinberg is divided in three premises to understand clearly. The first premise is that in order to have a right, one must have a valid claim. The second premise states that one must have reasons that support the individual in engaging to make a claim. And the third premise of the argument given by Feinberg states that with claiming comes both self-respect and respect for others.
Although rights and claims are closely intertwined but in the case of the people of Nowheresville, as they are unaware of what a right is and so do not possess any right, consequently, they are also unaware of what they owe and hence, cannot make a claim on it. As Feinberg states, “they have no notion of rights, so they do not have a notion of what is their due; hence they do not claim before they take.” Feinberg believes that in order to make a claim, one must have reasons to claim. One type of claim is when the claimant has a right to ask someone for their duty like a legal document. On the other hand, a claim is also made when someone does not possess any right but by making the claim, they try to obtain that right like when women claim that they must be given the right to abortion. Once the rights and claims have been understood, the last premise of the argument given by Feinberg makes the connection. Basically when a claim is made, the individual is practicing self-respect and eventually also considering respecting others. So, Feinberg believes that people respect each other because they have human dignity and are aware that they possess rights to make claims. Rights are the most useful kind of moral factors upon which one can stand firm upon and make claims. It is through rights that we make the perception of how others should treat us and how we should treat others.


It is no denying that historically, rights have played an important role in altering the living conditions of humans. Once the people recognized that they have rights towards to each other’s, they eventually started developing respect both for oneself and for others. If we take the example of slavery, then we can understand that once the black people rebelled and claimed their rights, the white people starting developing respect for them. But there is no chance that the white would have respected them had the black people not claimed that they ought to be free. Respect also comes from a moral code that dictates that one has a duty to respect others without the necessity that other claim it. So, Feinberg states that, “respect for persons may simply be respect for their rights, so that there cannot be the one without the other” The philosopher stands firm on his view that in the society, moral rights are very significant because it is due to those rights that we can challenge and confront others of how they treat us. Though it is a very gloomy perception of humanity but it still is the fact that people who are unaware of their rights are still being not given their due respect in the world. Until and unless they claim their rights, others do not take initiative to respect them at all.
In his study, Peter Jones identified that moral rights are distinguished in two ways: first, moral right must exist even if it isn’t existing; and secondly, a moral right is that existing right which is justified morally. Though the former is actually necessary but as Feinberg stated, in the society today, those rights which are being justified morally are being considered the moral rights.


In conclusion, I consider that the argument presented by Feinberg with respect to the importance of moral rights in the society today is a very useful notion. He has shown a very unique and distinct aspect which is usually overlooked by others regarding how the rights are useful in the world today. He has depicted nicely upon how rights can be claimed validly and also how having a reason to stand firm upon can trigger an individual to engage in the practice of making claims. Though I consider the last premise quiet inhumanely but I still agree that in the real world, those people gain respect only who are aware that it is their right to be respected. By discussing the argument of how Feinberg defines the relation between rights and morality in the society, it can be easily depicted that rights hold great significance in the society. But only those rights that have been clearly outlined in the moral codes of conduct can bring positive changes to the society.


Feinberg, Joel. 1992. 'The Social Importance of Moral Rights'. Philosophical Perspectives 6: 175. Doi:10.2307/2214244.
Feinberg, Joel. 1966. 'Duties, Rights, and Claims'. American Philosophical Quarterly 3 (2): 137-138.
FEINBERG, JOEL. 1992. 'In Defense of Moral Rights'. Oxford J Legal Studies 12 (2): 149-169. doi:10.1093/ojls/12.2.149.
Feinberg, Joel, and Jan Narveson. 1970. 'The Nature and Value of Rights'. J Value Inquiry 4 (4): 243-260. doi:10.1007/bf00137935.
Jones, Peter. 2012. 'Moral Rights, Human Rights and Social Recognition'. Political Studies 61 (2): 267-281. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9248.2012.00988.x.
Schaller, Walter E. 2000. 'Kant on Right and Moral Rights'. The Southern Journal of Philosophy 38 (2): 321-342. doi:10.1111/j.2041-6962.2000.tb00903.x.

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