This paper will accomplish two tasks. First, it will briefly outline the main points of Thomas Nagel’s argument in “Personal Rights and Public Space”. Secondly, it will examine and discuss the portion of his argument that I find to be the most problematic.
1. In his paper Nagel argues that rights are not merely self-evident and therefore do require some good arguments to ground them. He aims to establish that rights are justified by the status theory. We will come to see what he means by this later on. What primarily concerns Nagel is whether vastly different rights, for instance, one’s right to view and rent pornography and one’s freedom of association in political matters, can be connected in any meaningful way. His reply to this is that they can be. Before we go any further, I will mention that the types of rights discussed in his paper are in the form of negative rights. In understanding his overall view, Nagel wants the reader to think of rights as a kind of status, as mentioned earlier. Similar to other kinds of status like national citizenship, having rights is part of the membership in a type of community and in this case, it is a moral community. As such, and unlike legal or political status, rights have a normative base. That is to say, rights are not created but are instead recognized for each person. Further, its existence doesn’t depend on political and other types of institutional recognition or enforcement, rather it depends on moral argument alone. Of course there are institutions such as the United Nations that can enforce them when the need arises, but the establishment of rights do not depend on the practices of such institutions.
According to Nagel, rights can be justified either instrumen...
... middle of paper ...
... For example, one right a may be able to override another right b at the individual level of rights; your right to enjoy doing z or your right not to be interfered with your enjoyment of z is “trumped” by my personal property rights to z. But one might ask: can’t rights be suspended or restricted? For instance, is it not permissible to use the death penalty or to restrict a person’s liberty when they have committed a crime? There may be other, perhaps utilitarian reasons to allow these things, but it doesn’t follow that these acts are morally justified at the same time.
This paper briefly looked at the structure of Nagel’s overall argument and then outlined and analyzed the part of his argument where it seems inconsistent.
Thomas Nagel. “Personal Rights and Public Space.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 24, no.2 (1995): 83-107.
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