Saturday, January 11, 2003


According to the oxford Dictionary, a right is a “justifiable claim on legal or moral grounds to have or obtain something, or to act in a certain way.” A right may be a legal right, that is a right that can be enforced through a court of law, such as a ‘right of way’ through the grounds of a landed proprietor, and the legal aspects of such a right are of course matters for jurisprudence, the science of law. On the other hand, a right may be entirely a moral right and one which a court of law will not enforce, such as the right of a parent to obedience on the part of his children, or the right of an old man to respect.
‘What are the moral grounds on which the claim to do or to enjoy in these cases is justified?’ The common answer is that a right is justified by the fact that the ability of an individual to assert it is for the common good. If the general good is the basis of rights, it follows that the way in which a right should be asserted is the way that is most likely to increase to the maximum the common good. This may determine why some rights should be enforceable by law, while others are not. It is for the good of the community that certain rights, like the right to property, should be so enforceable, and others, like the right to respect, should not be so enforceable.


It has been the common practice of rebels against the existing social order, and of reformers generally, to state that there are certain fundamental rights of man, which every human being has by nature. Mackenzie made the following list of such human rights: (a) the right to life; (b) the right to freedom; (c) the right to hold property; (d) the right of contract, and (e) the right to education.
These rights are natural only in the sense that it is when men enjoy such rights that they have the opportunity of reaching their true nature in the sense of realizing their capacities or of attaining their perfection. Even in a civilized community, the general enjoyment of these rights is subject to limitations and interruptions. In the circumstances of war the community still demands that many individuals should sacrifice their lives, and that most people should give up the greater part of their freedom. Even in time op peace the right to freedom is limited by what will lead to the common good, and it is now generally realized that some measure of control over industry is needed in an industrial society. A communistic system so alters the right of the individual to hold property that it becomes something altogether different from that right in a capitalistic society; and there may be moral grounds for holding that a man’s property should be limited to that which he can personally use for the common good.


The word ‘duty’, like the word ‘right’, has more than one use both in common speech and in ethics. One of the ways in which we sometimes describe a good action is by saying that it is our duty to do it. The action, which it is our duty to do, differs from a right action in two ways.
It implies that only one action is right for us at the particular moment in question, because if it were equally right to do two alternative actions, we would not be able to say of either of them that it is our duty to do it.
It emphasizes that the action is not merely fitting but that it is obligatory. Dr Moore expands that second difference by pointing out that duties have the following additional characteristics:
Duties are right actions which many people are tempted to avoid doing;
The most prominent good effects of duties are on people other than the doer of the action, hence our temptation to avoid doing them;
They arouse sentiments of moral approval in a way that merely right actions do not.

If a right is a justifiable claim in a community, a duty is the obligation to fulfill that claim. A duty may thus be defined as the obligation of an individual to satisfy a claim made upon him by the community, or some other individual member
Or members of that community, in the name of the common good. The child has a right to education, so it is the duty of his parents or of the stat generally to provide him with this education.
A right may involve a duty in two different ways.
If one individual has a right, some other individual or individuals must have the duty of satisfying the claim, which is recognized by that right. The child’s right to education implies a duty on the part of his parents or of the state to provide him with that education. In some cases, the duty related to a right is not so obvious, because it is largely a negative duty or a duty of abstaining from something. A man’s right to the use of his won property implies a duty on the part of his neighbours to refrain from encroaching on that property.
If an individual has a right it is his duty to use that right for the common good of his community. It is, for example, the duty of a child to use his education in such a way that he may become a useful member of society.