The "ethics of rights" represents the dominant contemporary approach to understanding the nature of moral obligation. However, some writers have criticized the "rights-based" approach to morality by claiming that morality cannot be based entirely on fundamental principles which assign rights to human individuals. Instead what we need is a pluralistic understanding of normative ethics which recognizes that besides rights, notions such as responsibilities, values, interests, utility, and other moral notions are also fundamental moral concepts.
According to Joseph Raz, "`x has a right' means that, other things being equal, an aspect of x's well‑being (his interest) is a sufficient reason for holding some other person(s) to be under a duty" ["Nature of Rights" Mind 93 (1984), pp.194-214]. This formula expresses is what is called the "beneficiary view" of rights which regards the "interests of people as the only ultimate value," and assigns duties to others which are grounded in rights of individuals to have their well-being or interests protected. This is a useful way of thinking about rights that I will return to later one. However, for now, I want to focus on the limitations of this view.
One important limitation of rights‑based moralities stems from their being nothing more than the grounds of duties to individuals. But, as Raz and others have argued, there are some things which we morally ought to do and to value which do not stem from duties to particular human individuals which arise in virtue of their rights; "There is more to morality than rights and duties and precepts which can be derived from them" (183).
Raz rejects moral individualism: i.e., the view that the only morally significant values are ones which resolve to individual personal interests. Rights‑based theories are usually individualistic in that they do not recognize "any intrinsic value in any collective good" (186). They typically hold that collective goods have only instrumental value. Since there are some collective goods which have intrinsic value, he concludes that rights-based approaches to morality cannot encompass all that which moral agents ought to do or to value.
As an example of this he cites various collective goods which individuals may value but which do not resolve to benefits to individuals:
Consider collective goods such as living in a beautiful town, which is economically prosperous, and in a society that is tolerant and cultured. Living in such a society is in the interest of each of the inhabitants: it is more agreeable to live in such a society, whatever one's personal circumstances, than to live in one which lacks these attributes. But the fact that it is in my interest to live in such a society is not normally considered sufficient to establish that I have a right to live in such a society....This is explicable on the definition of rights offered above, according to which a right is a sufficient ground for holding another to have a duty. It is the common view that my interest in living in a prosperous, cultured, and tolerant society and in a beautiful environment is not enough to impose a duty on anyone to make my society and environment so (189‑190).
The existence of such collective (or public) goods suggests that, "It is implausible to assume that an individual can conduct his whole life on the basis and sole motivation of respecting other people's rights" (198).
In addition to moral duties which are derived from the rights of individuals, Raz also mentions duties which arise in the context of various personal relationships: "Personal friendships, marital relations, one's loyalty and sense of pride in one's workplace or one's country are among the most valuable and rewarding aspects of many people's lives" (200). The moral significance of personal relationships consists in the fact that special duties may arise in such cases which do not correspond to rights which individuals may demand.
For instance, "Friendships entail a special concern for the welfare of the friend, concern for his welfare over and above the concern required of us towards other human beings generally..." (197). We may, in his example, feel we have a duty to compensate a friend for a loss, even though we did not cause it, because of the value which we place on the friendship. Such a duty, he argues, does not derive from our friend's "right to compensation" since compensation for a loss is not something which he can demand.
These reflections are perfectly consistent with, and indeed support my claim that there are certain moral responsibilities that we can have that are non-optional but also non-peremptory. Since friends are supposed to care for their friends' well-being and happiness, they can be thought to have a special role-related moral responsibility to compensate them for a loss, even though their friends cannot demand that they do so. One has such responsibilities independently of any rights that one's friends may have against you.
As a second example of duties that do not derive from rights, Raz discusses the duty not to destroy a valuable work of art which one owns. Normally. ownership entails the right to dispose of one's property in any way that one pleases. Owning a Van Gogh painting gives me the right to destroy it, even though one ought not to exercise that right because one has a responsibility not to wantonly destroy something of beauty and value.
On the other hand, despite the fact that many people would derive pleasure from seeing the painting, no one has a right that I shall not destroy it. "Nevertheless, while I owe no one a duty to preserve the painting I am under such a duty. The reason is that to destroy it and deny the duty is to do violence to art and to show oneself blind to one of the values which give life a meaning" (197). Put in another way, I have a non-optional but non-peremptory responsibility to protect the painting even though I have the right to destroy it. Saying that I have the right to destroy it simply means here that no one else is in a position to demand that I not destroy the painting. Yet having a responsibility to protect it entails that I have a moral responsibility not to destroy it. While I may exercise my right to destroy my painting, doing so would leave my action open to moral criticism. One sometimes has a responsibility not to do things that one has a right to do.
I prefer the term "responsibility" to denote what Raz describes as "duties which do not derive from rights." In his example, the owner has a responsibility not to destroy the Van Gogh painting but to preserve it, though his ownership gives him the right to destroy it. I, the painting's owner, in particular have this responsibility because ownership places me in a position of power over the objects I own; my possessions are specially vulnerable to me.
But my right of ownership is limited by a coordinate responsibility to care for items of my property which are valuable and specially vulnerable to harm. I may, in this case, have a duty to care for a valuable work of art, though that duty is owed to no one in particular in virtue of his or her rights. Responsibilities to protect valuable moral patients which are not persons provides an example of a moral responsibility that does not derive from someone's rights.