Bioethics Blogs

The fundamental elements of rights

Rights-talk is pervasive. The assertions “I have a right to that” or “You can’t violate their rights!” are familiar, and we often take ourselves to understand what they mean. But, insufficient attention is often paid to the various elements that jointly comprise a right, and very little attention is given to how those elements fit together.[1] This oversight can cause problems, and so it’s worth being clear about what we’re talking about when we speak of rights.

When discussing rights, we can distinguish between the grounds, the structure, and the content of any given right we are considering. These different elements of the right perform different functions and it is thus important to understand the distinct role of each:

  1. Grounds: The grounds of a right are the property on which that right is based. In specifying the grounds of a right, one is thereby specifying the domain of possible right-bearers. For example: On an interest theory of rights, possession of an interest in some aspect of well-being grounds rights. The potential right-bearers are specified as those beings who possess the relevant interest. If the interest is in avoiding pain, then anything that feels pain, and has an interest in avoiding it, will be part of the relevant domain. If the interest is in exercising freedom of choice, then all free beings will be part of the relevant domain.

It is important that we see that the grounds of a right do not specify the actual right bearers but only the possible right bearers (i.e., possession of the grounds is a necessary but insufficient condition for possession of the right).

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.