Justice and right

Political theories based on right can very easily dissolve justice into right. Such a dissolution involves saying that there is nothing to justice beyond preserving, delineating, and defending rights. Let’s stipulate that all accounts of justice are in fact rights- relative, that is, that every act of justice is inseparable from the reality that such and such is owed to someone by right. What problem is there in simply using “right” as a proxy for “justice”? Won’t we get exactly the same results?

Justice is the virtue of right operation to others. As a virtue, it is confers good on the one who has it, as giving right operation to others it confers some good on others. Notice that from one and the same action, good necessarily flows into a multitude: the one who acts and another. Right is not like this. Right captures the aspect of justice that speaks of “right operation to others”, but it prescinds from how such an operation needs to be perfective of the one from whom the operation flows. Right is a kind of abstraction in the mind that cannot be an abstraction in reality: the separation of “giving what is due” from the moral perfection of the giver. There is nothing wrong with these abstractions, and political  thought needs to make them, but there is a blind side to the abstraction that we need to be aware of.

A full rights theory needs to recognize how the actuality of right- the satisfaction of right- is a good that is not limited to the one with the right, but it belongs both to the one who receives the good by right and the one who provides it to him. There is a single good which flows into two persons in different modes; but it flows in a higher mode into the one who acts or gives since it flows into him as virtue. A full rights theory would be a way of leading to a recognition of the superabundance of justice (where “superabundance” means “a good not limited to one nor diminished by being common”)

Notice that it is not enough to include a notion of “duty” as a correlative of right, though this is necessary. Neither right nor duty speaks to a superabundant good, flowing in diverse modes. Rights based theories must be perfected in one way by relating them to duties and in another way by relating them to justice.


  1. Edward said,

    December 10, 2009 at 10:21 am

    I would say that, currently, modern rights theories positively cannot acknowledge the existence of the “giver” without fundamentally altering their theory as it stands. Rights as they are understood today are the prerogative of the individual and the government which must provide for him. If we begin to ask “Who possesses the primary obligation?” we are already acknowledging that ethical obligations are particular and not universal, thus we take the first step on the road to a sort of natural justice where only parents owe their children anything. This is completely inimical to modernity as a political or ethical philosophy which uses rights in order to weaken our natural obligations to particular people (family, friends, neighbors, etc.).

  2. December 10, 2009 at 2:18 pm

    This may be right- but there is such a dizzying number of rights theories that I doubt whether I could test what you are saying. I can see some of the basic distinctions (positive and negative rights, say), and the need to relate them (in diverse ways) to duty and justice, but outside of that I’m over my head.

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