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Arts & Letters Daily


7b. Rights - Allocating books


The distinction between ‘having rights” and “having a duty’


Duty. Mr. Jacks was making a final count of the English books that had been allocated to him for his English classes because some students can get quite upset when they don’t receive their textbooks on the first day of classes. Sure enough, the new vice principal, Ms. Bentley, had short-changed him of two copies of one of the novels. This was the second year that she had made a counting error. Enough already! He was sure she was shorting him whenever there was a shortage of books. This time he was not going to put up with it. He confronted her accusing her of deliberately short changing him whenever there was a shortage of books. Had he made a moral issue of what started as a non-moral issue? Was that immoral?

Rights. Ms. Bentley retorted, ‘I have a duty to allocate the textbooks … that gives me the right to allocate the books as best I can. Someone has to put up with textbook shortages. In any case, you won’t be using the novel where you are short of two copies till later in the year. We might be able to order those books before you need them.’ With that said, she returned to distributing books.


  • Since Ms. Bentley has a duty then in virtue of his having that duty does she have a certain right?
  • Discuss other situations where people use this kind of thinking.

You may want to discuss other dilemmas.

Consider this view about ‘having rights and duties’

  • Crooked thinking

To every right there is a corresponding duty.

  • Straight thinking

The relationship between these two concepts raises several problems. The first problem is “Do rights and duties correspond?” This question means:

1. Is it the case that if John has a duty then in virtue of his having that duty he would have a certain right?

2. Is it the case that if John has a right then in virtue of his having that right he would have a certain duty?

At first glance, it would seem that to every right there is a corresponding duty. For example, it has been argued that people must or should exercise their rights so that they will not jeopardize them for lack of use. But this example confuses human rights with civil right. It is recognized by many that children have rights (though not necessarily civil rights) but they do not have corresponding duties. It could be argued that children have potential corresponding duties. In other words, children will have to assume certain duties as soon as they have acquired maturity. It would seem, though, that certain rights have corresponding duties. For example, a person who has the right to marry and procreate children would seem to have the corresponding duty of looking after those children. However, even this corresponding duty has exceptions. In a number of societies, arrangements have been made for social institutions to assist in looking after the children or even to assume the full responsibility of looking after children. In summary, the correspondence between rights and duties does not seem to be clear cut at all.

Moral principle value tests

An application of the moral principle value tests probably illustrates most clearly what is entailed in evaluative reasoning. They are:

It is important to emphasize that the moral-value principle tests are not designed to resolve issues (guarantee right answers!) but to assess the ‘justification’ for moral value decisions.

To view the Dilemma from the perspective of Duty, Rights, Motives, Desert and Justice, click the following:

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