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The Realm of Rights [Paperback]

Judith Jarvis Thomson
2.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Book Description

January 31, 1992 0674749499 978-0674749498

The concept of a right is fundamental to moral, political, and legal thinking, but much of the use of that concept is selective and fragmentary: it is common merely to appeal to this or that intuitively plausible attribution of rights as needed for purposes of argument. In The Realm of Rights Judith Thomson provides a full-scale, systematic theory of human and social rights, bringing out what in general makes an attribution of a right true.

Thomson says that the question what it is to have a right precedes the question which rights we have, and she therefore begins by asking why our having rights is a morally significant fact about us. She argues that a person's having a right is reducible to a complex moral constraint: central to that constraint is that, other things being equal, the right ought to be accorded. Thomson asks what those other things are that may or may not be equal, and describes the tradeoffs that relieve us of the requirement to accord a right.

Our rights fall into two classes, those we have by virtue of being human beings and those we have by virtue of private interactions and law. Thomson argues that the first class includes rights that others not kill or harm us, but does not include rights that others meet our needs. The second class includes rights that issue from promises and consent, and Thomson shows how they are generated; she also argues that property rights issue only from a legitimate legal system, so that the second class includes them as well.

The Realm of Rights will take its place as a major effort to provide a stable foundation for our deeply held belief that we are not mere cogs in a communal machine, but are instead individuals whose private interests are entitled to respect.


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Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

Thomson argues forcefully that rights form a basic part of morality, then sets forward the main rights that people have. Her method proceeds by the ingenious examples for which she is famous, and her cases depend on appeals to moral judgments that she deems obvious. Some philosophers attack this approach on the ground that common-sense beliefs are not enough for a proper theory, but Thomson mounts a sharp counterattack. After defending her philosophical method, she applies it to a careful definition of rights that refines the standard analysis of philosopher Wesley Hohfeld. She challenges the view that the aim of morality is to maximize value, the principal doctrine of those who reject rights. Thomson places great stress on First Property, each person's ownership of his or her own body. Second Property--ownership of things besides one's body--she maintains is largely the artifact of a society's legal system. This gracefully written book excels in pene trating analysis. Highly recommended.
-David Gordon, Bowling Green State Univ., Ohio
Copyright 1990 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

This book isn't only about rights; it is also about thinking about rights. Thomson works her way through to a comprehensive account of what our rights are (and aren't: she is wonderfully resistant to rights extravaganzas). She also shows us, with elegance and wit, how to do this sort of work: what a philosophical argument is, how one shapes an argument and makes it stick, and why the enterprise is so engaging. (Michael Walzer, The Institute for Advanced Study)

A great book. It offers a sustained account of rights and will be the standard work on rights. Thomson's book is more straightforward and much less speculative than, for example, Rawls or Dworkin. Thomson has a very distinctive, attractive voice. The text has a real personality. This is where future work on rights must start. (Gilbert Harman, Princeton University)

The book presents and defends a systematic normative ethical theory built on the structure of a rights theory. Thomson is at home in these subjects, and her discussion here is masterful. She has few equals at the deft and imaginative manipulation of generalizations and counterexamples. (Joel Feinberg, University of Arizona)

What I like most about this work is Thomson's faithfulness to nuance and detail in aid of clarifying what can accurately be said about her cases at the most general level. In this connection, her discussions of the relation between compensation and the residue of rights, the question of the 'absoluteness' of rights, and alleged moral dilemmas are especially good examples of how she cuts through the many confusions that have surrounded these topics by razor-sharp treatment of cases. (Stephen L. Darwall, University of Michigan)

Product Details

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (January 31, 1992)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674749499
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674749498
  • Product Dimensions: 1.1 x 5.8 x 9.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 2.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,400,873 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

2.8 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What are rights, and which ones do we have? June 19, 2001
Format:Paperback
This fine volume by Judith Jarvis Thomson may be the best analysis of rights out there.

Thomson breaks her discussion into two parts. In roughly the first half of the book, she carefully analyzes what it means to have a "right." In the second, she sets out to determine, as far as possible, just exactly _which_ rights we have.

Part one leans heavily on Wesley Hohfeld, a legal theorist who in the early twentieth century wrote two seminal papers (I hate describing papers as "seminal," but these two really are) on the taxonomy of legal rights, claims, duties, and so forth. Thomson imports Hohfeld's taxonomy into her discussion of moral rights, in the process subjecting it to exacting scrutiny (and some tweezing), and uses it as a foundation for a thorough analysis of just what is involved in possessing a "right."

Part two sets out a clear analysis of the usual classical-liberal/libertarian rights to life, liberty, and property. Here I shall comment only that if Ayn Rand had written with half the clarity, rigor, and just plain _reasonableness_ that Thomson brings to bear on this topic, she might have been the philosopher she thought she was. (And she wouldn't have tried to reduce ethics to rational self-interest.)

But Rand's handwaving non-account of reason would have caved in if she had tried to use it for anything like this. Thomson's foundational claim, as explained in an introduction that alone is worth the price of the entire book, is that we really do have rational insight into necessary moral truths; she therefore stands firmly in the rationalist-intuitionist line of succession that Rand rejected. (Thomson mentions W.D.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Its good but could be better March 6, 2014
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I enjoyed the read and it has insightful points. I recommend this to anyone looking for an introduction into the subject material of rights. But be warned that some parts just seem lacking, as if Thomson is building up to something and then decided oh well lets continue on to the next section. So for this reason I think this is a good intro book, but perhaps either using another book as a primary text or supplementing the two together might work best.
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1 of 4 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Mind-Numbingly Bad October 11, 2012
By Joe D.
Format:Paperback
Judith Jarvis Thomson comes at the topic of natural rights from two angles, the first of which asks what having such a right IS and what it means. Secondly, she explores what is in that sphere (or realm) of rights. If readers want to save themselves from the mind-suck that is this book, all they need to know are Thomson's 3 main points: First, Thomson merely asserts (and makes no attempt to justify) that while not all of what we call "morality" is contained within the context of "rights," most of it is. Second, she says that having a right is to have a moral status and is equivalent of saying what a person "ought to do" and/ or "ought not do," if a person has a certain right or cluster of rights that pertain to the relevant issue(s) at hand. She then spends much effort (which is meandering and only marginally coherent) at offering a semblance of criteria by which we can decide what a violation of a right is. She calls these "claims" (against rights). That's it in a nutshell; now let me move on to how she says it.

Rather than starting with a purely top-down or deductive approach, Thomson merely mentions some general principles that would fit into that schema (which seems reasonable at first glance), and then constructs hypothetical situation after hypothetical situation which poke holes in those archetypes and tries to rework rights models from an inductive or bottom-up approach. This is a fine way to approach things as far as it goes, but the author cannot seem to be concise and doesn't even appear to have tried as she proceeds to subject readers to mind-numbing and hyperbolic grand circumlocutions to try to make her vague points about how this or that example fails to connect and why.
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1 of 16 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars gave up on it February 14, 2008
Format:Paperback
I gave up reading it after 2 chapters. It's full of mathematical formulas and equations that made it almost impossible for me to follow....Waste of money and time.
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