Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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Conscience of a Progressive
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A Dim View of Libertarianism

Rawls and the Duty to Posterity
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For Environmental Educators

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Chapter Thirteen




(Original Chapter Title: Rights, Justice, and Human Dignity.


Foundations of morality. Cognitivism. Parallel to science.

The Non Cognitivist Challenge. Positivism and Existetialism.

The Game of Morality.


Rights and Human Dignity.




Rights, Justice, and Human Dignity



Human rights are at the center of both the libertarian and the progressive ideologies. And from this pivotal center, the two ideologies diverge.

They diverge because, as we have seen, libertarians and progressives articulate their moral philosophies from radically different perspectives.

The Libertarian: From the point of view of the individual ("the egocentric point of view"). "Good for each."

The Progressive: From the perspective of the benevolent spectator of society ("the moral point of view"). "Good for all."

Thus the libertarian (who, recall, denies the very existence of "society") advocates the maximum liberty for each individual. [Cf. Traffic lights]. The progressive seeks to maximize the amount of liberty extant in the society. In rebuttal, the progressive points out that the libertarian fails to recognize that the individual liberties advocated by the libertarians, especially the liberties enjoyed by the privileged, powerful and wealthy, can constrain the liberties and diminish the welfare of others – what I call "liberty costs" and "welfare costs," (which we will discuss in Chapter 17). In other words, the attempt to maximize individual liberty is, paradoxically, self-defeating. Someone’s individual liberty eventually "bumps into" another’s liberty.

"Good for each, bad for all."

A biologist of my acquaintance has little regard for the concept of rights. Like Jeremy Bentham, who dismissed talk about rights as "nonsense on stilts." My friend proclaims that "the operative meaning of ‘rights is ‘I want!’"

A refutation is immediately at hand: one can have a right without wanting it. Half of the American citizens who have the right to vote don’t want to take the trouble to exercise it. And conversely, one can have wants without rights. I want a summer home in Alaska and a winter home in Hawaii, but, given my financial circumstances, I have no right to possess them.

No, rights do not issue from what we want. Rights issue from what we are: rational, contemplative beings, with legitimate interests and inherent worth, and therefore worthy of respect.

By demanding recognition of his or her rights, the free citizen proclaims to the world that s/he is responsible and deserving of respect. Conversely, and by implication, that same individual recognizes in all other persons the rights and the respect claimed for oneself.

These, briefly, are the issues to be discussed in this chapter. As before, do not be discouraged if they are difficult to grasp at first reading. The chapter is dedicated to the task of clarifying these assertions.

--- "Rights" are based upon the interests of individuals. Sentient animals, because they can be harmed or benefitted, can be said to have "rights." These are called "moral patients." [Interests are necessary but not sufficient for rights]

--- Rights correlate with duties. But only persons can be said to have duties (also called "responsibilities"). Thus persons are said to be "moral agents," in addition to being "moral patients." Where there are no persons, there are no rights, not even of animals.

--- There are duties to communities apart from duties to component individuals. ("Bad for each, good for all). Thus "society" has rights, since society has interests. The rights of communities are derived from the rights of individual citizens within.

--- [How human dignity is derived from personhood. – freedom, responsibility, rationality. Foundation of respect, hence rights] Cf. Kant.].

--- Virtue refers to the moral qualities of the individual. Justice refers to the moral qualities of human groups and human societies. A "just society" is regulated by rules (both explicit and implicit) that maximize the well-being and the protection of the rights of the individuals in that society.

--- Progressivism is based upon these principles, and thus is validated by fundamental human (personal) nature.

— Rights follow from the mutual recognition in society of the personhood of others. In the previous chapter we encountered a falue-free account of how morality is possible. That same account stands as a foundation of our normative theory of rights.



A Taxonomy of Rights.



In Rem/In Personam .





The Interest Theory of Rights

[Credit to Feinberg]


Rights and Duties.

Rights of animals and persons.

Rights imply claims on others. But the "others" must be moral agents (persons).

In the wild there is no right to live, liberty and property.

Prey-Predator. Racoon story.

Liberty rights (negative) – not to be harmed. These are fundamental to libertarians.

However, libertarians do not recognize welfare (positive) rights, failing to recognize that negative rights translate into welfare rights.

Liberty costs – harm to others – translate into welfare costs.

The Rights of Future Generations

[Past Generations? Cite PIPR, but don’t elaborate]


Human Rights and Human Dignity

[Better "personal" than "human" – but will yield to convention].

Qt. Feinberg.

Meaning and Function of "Justice"

Rawls’s approach.

In Summary: Rights to Progressives and Libertarians.

[Liberty and Welfare costs – a preview. Ch. 17].






Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .