14 July 2012

Tom Regan on Rights

Tom ReganWhether individuals have legal rights depends on the laws and other legal background (e.g., the constitution) of the society in which they live. In some countries (e.g., the United States) citizens meeting certain requirements have the legal right to vote or run for elected office; in other countries (e.g., Libya) citizens do not have these rights. Moreover, even in those countries that give this right to its citizens, the requirements are not always the same and are subject to change. In the United States, for example, citizens once had to be twenty-one years of age to vote in federal elections; now they must be eighteen. At one time one could not vote if one were black or female or illiterate; now one has this right regardless of race or sex or educational achievement. Legal rights thus are subject to great variation, not only among different countries at the same time but also in the same country at different times. When it comes to legal rights, not all individuals are equal. This should not be surprising. The legal rights individuals have arise as the result of the creative activity of human beings. Those rights set forth in the Bill of Rights, for example, were not rights that citizens of the United States could claim as legal rights before these rights were drawn up and the legal machinery necessary for their enforcement was in place.

The concept of moral rights differs in important ways from that of legal rights. First, moral rights, if there are any, are universal. This means that if any individual (A) has such a right, then any other individual like A in the relevant respects also has this right. What counts as the relevant respects is controversial. . . . What is not controversial is the exclusion of some characteristics as relevant. An individual's race, sex, religion, place of birth, or country of domicile are not relevant characteristics for the possession of moral rights. We cannot deny that individuals possess moral rights, as we can in the case of the possession of legal rights, because of, for example, where they live.

A second feature of moral rights is that they are equal. This means that if any two individuals have the same moral right (e.g., the right to liberty), then they have this right equally. Possession of moral rights does not come in degrees. All who possess them possess them equally, whether they are, say, white or black, male or female, Americans or Iranians.

Third, moral rights, unlike legal rights, do not arise as a result of the creative acts of any one individual (e.g., a despot) or any group (e.g., a legislative assembly). Theoretically, one could, it is true, create legal rights that accord with or protect moral rights, but that is not the same as creating these moral rights in the first place. If there are moral rights, they do not "come to be" in the way legal rights do.

(Tom Regan, The Case for Animal Rights, updated with a new preface [Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004], 267-8 [ellipsis added] [first edition published in 1983])