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Moral Rights and Social Conventions

Nieswandt, Katharina (2015) Moral Rights and Social Conventions. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh. (Unpublished)

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Did we invent or discover moral rights? What would either answer entail for the duties that rights purport to create? And what would it entail for political and legal rights?
The following three papers revolve around these questions. My answers exploit a property of rights that makes them very special: There is a constitutive connection between their justification and their existence. I have a right iff I am indeed justified in making certain demands, iff it is indeed true that others owe me certain duties. A theory of right therefore requires us to connect metaphysical with moral issues.
“Anscombe on the Sources of Normativity” is the first systematic reconstruction of a very important discovery of hers. Rights (and also rules and promises) are self-referential: They purport to themselves be the justification of the duty that they impose; and they indeed are the justification if the purported duty exists indeed. For Anscombe, a social constructivist view of right-based duties is the only way explain this property: Rights can justify themselves, just as rules in a board game can, because they exist as part and parcel of a larger social practice.
“Do Rights Exist by Convention or by Nature?” uses Anscombe’s discovery of the self-referentiality of rights to shed new light on an old debate: that between natural rights theorists and social constructivists about rights. I attempt a proof of Anscombe’s contention that rights can only exist with social practices. I also spell out what kind of universal rights are still possible within such a social constructivist framework.
“Authority and Interest in the Theory of Right” applies Anscombe’s discovery to a current standoff in legal philosophy. I argue that “Will Theory,” according to which I have a right iff I have a justified claim against someone, gives the correct justification of rights, provided we modify certain details. “Interest Theory,” however, according to which I have a right iff I have a legitimate interest, seems to give the correct justification of the practices, within which rights are assigned (as opposed to any individual person’s right, as Interest Theorists claim).


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Item Type: University of Pittsburgh ETD
Status: Unpublished
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
Nieswandt, Katharinakan55@pitt.eduKAN55
ETD Committee:
TitleMemberEmail AddressPitt UsernameORCID
Committee ChairThompson,
Committee MemberPallikkathayil, Japajapa@pitt.eduJAPA
Committee MemberGoodhart, Michaelgoodhart@pitt.eduGOODHART
Committee MemberKessler,
Committee MemberEngstrom, Stevenengstrom@pitt.eduENGSTROM
Date: 27 September 2015
Date Type: Publication
Defense Date: 29 April 2015
Approval Date: 27 September 2015
Submission Date: 7 April 2015
Access Restriction: No restriction; Release the ETD for access worldwide immediately.
Number of Pages: 119
Institution: University of Pittsburgh
Schools and Programs: Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences > Philosophy
Degree: PhD - Doctor of Philosophy
Thesis Type: Doctoral Dissertation
Refereed: Yes
Uncontrolled Keywords: natural rights; deontic modals; G.E.M. Anscombe; practices; Hume's Circle
Date Deposited: 27 Sep 2015 23:11
Last Modified: 15 Nov 2016 14:27


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