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Are rights ranted to us by government? (Is saying that "I have a right to free

Are rights ranted to us by government? (Is saying that "I have a right to free speech" simply a way of saying that my government permits me to speak freely?) Or do we have rights independently of government, such that institutions like freedom of speech amount to a recognition by government of such rights?

Some rights are granted to us by our government, such as the right to drive a car for example. But there are others which governments themselves agree are not granted by them but exist independently. Various governmental documents (such as the Declaration of Independence) speak of "unalienable" or “inalienable” rights, for example. An inalienable right is a right that its holders cannot lose, not through anything they do themselves (waiver or forfeiture), nor through anything others do, for instance through an alteration of the law. In a similar way, the human rights that have emerged in the last 65 years are conceived as not merely part of the law but also a moral standard that all law ought to meet and a standard that is not yet met by much existing law in many countries. Law has incorporated human rights in a way that points beyond itself: to a normativity that does not depend on the law for its existence and cannot be revised or repealed by legislative or judicial fiat or by other law-making mechanisms such as treaties or international custom. This point is prominently expressed in many legal documents, for instance in the very first words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which call for the “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.” With this formulation, echoed in frequent appeals to “internationally recognized human rights,” governments present themselves as recognizing certain rights in law rather than as creating these rights from scratch. Human rights law is not declaring itself the source of human rights, but, on the contrary, asserting that all human beings have certain human rights regardless of whether these are recognized in their jurisdiction or indeed anywhere at all. Human rights are set forth in the law in a way that implies that these rights have an independent existence and thus existed before they were codified and would continue to exist even if governments were to withdraw their legal recognition.


Hi. I live in Israel. I do not wish to be recruited to the Israeli army for two main reasons. One is the preservation of my liberty (the mandatory service in the IDF is 3 years), the second is the desire to refrain from harming others. While I am not sure how to justify this principles in a general theory of "the universe", I am firmly certain that in Israel, the political situation enables me to use them in order to avoid being recruited to the IDF. However, there is a third variable that keeps nagging me - justice. If I do not serve, other people are protecting me, and there is nothing I can do to avoid it. Can you help? Suggest a line of reasoning and investigation? Sincerely, Shmuel

I am not so sure that you can get out of your military service simply by saying that you wish to preserve your liberty and don't wish to harm other people. You may know the present situation better than I do, but I know of a number of young Israelis who ended up in jail for refusing to serve in the IDF.

I see your justice point: The IDF is protecting the physical security of Israeli citizens (or at least of a large majority of the Israeli population to which you belong), and so it seems unjust for you to enjoy this protection but then also to refuse to contribute to it.

You say that there is nothing you can do to avoid being protected by the IDF. If this were true, then this would weaken your reasons to serve. To illustrate, suppose you have a fan who, unprompted by you, greatly improves your reputation by posting admiring stories about you on Facebook, by very effectively singing your praises to important people in your social environment whose support will greatly help your career, etc. You learn about this person's efforts, and you realize that you benefit from these efforts. But you have no obligation to reciprocate, I would think, precisely because you had no choice in the matter, never asked your fan to act in your behalf or even signaled your approval. Matters are different when you do have a choice and then actively take advantage of benefits made available to you. Suppose, for example, that all the other occupants of your apartment building collaborate to cultivate a beautiful flower garden near your building. This garden cannot be seen from the outside (it is surrounded by hedges), but because you love flowers you often go there and sit on the bench. Here it seems that it would be wrong of you to take advantage of the beautiful garden while refusing to join the effort to maintain it (assuming that your neighbors really want you to contribute etc.).

The preceding paragraph suggest that your justice reason for serving in the IDF is the stronger the more of a choice you have about whether to remain in Israel. If you could easily leave and, say, live in the US instead, then your remaining in Israel is closer to the garden case, where you are taking advantage of the efforts of others. If you have no realistic way of avoiding protection by the IDF (short of suicide, say, which is obviously not a serious option here), then your presence in Israel is closer to the Facebook case where you benefit without choice and thus may permissibly refuse to reciprocate by doing your fair share.

Coming to your first two reasons now. Serving in an army means subjecting oneself to the far-reaching authority of its commanders and political leaders. They may order you to kill people, and they may order you into situations in which you must kill in order to survive. Soldiers harm people; and, more importantly, soldiers often wrongly harm people. Many of the objectives armies are used to achieve are unjust objectives, and many of the people who get killed by soldiers are innocent people and people whose killing is not morally justifiable or excusable. So your fear that, by joining the army, you will become a participant in unjust harm is entirely realistic. Joining the IDF, you may well be ordered to man checkpoints and to police roads that stifle the movement of Palestinians within the West Bank, for example, or to fire tank shells at, or drop bombs upon, civilian homes in the Gaza Strip. To put it bluntly, you may be given orders that, if you comply, will make you harm and even kill innocent people whom it is wrong to harm or kill.

By joining the army, you will make it much harder for yourself to avoid wrongdoing, to avoid harming and even killing innocent people. How much this matters depends on the specific situation. If an army fights (or is disposed only to fight) justly for an important just cause, then one may have strong moral reason, on balance, to join it. If an army is fighting, or disposed to fight, for an unjust cause, then one may have strong moral reason to refuse to join even when one also expects personally to benefit from this army's success. In such a case one would still have reason to avoid the benefits if one can do so witout undue hardship and also reason, of course, to avoid making other contributions to the army's success.

So this is what you might say in defense of your refusal to join the IDF to others who are joining and accusing you of being a free-rider. You can say that one central objective the IDF is used to support is the appropriation of land in the West Bank for new and expanding Israeli settlements, and that this is an unjust objective and policy that wrongly harms the Palestinians who live there. It would be wrong to contribute to the injustice done to the Palestinians and therefore wrong for you to join the IDF. You might add that, while the IDF also serves the legitimate objective of protecting you and other Israeli civilians from violence by Palestinians, much of this protection is needed only because of unjust Israeli policy in the West Bank.

If it is said in response that you are benefiting from the settlement policy, you can respond that you are not actively taking advantage of it (e.g., by living in the West Bank) and only benefiting from it (e.g., through lower real estate prices in Israel) in ways you cannot reasonably avoid.

If it is said that you should then (given what you believe) actively avoid the benefits by working toward emigration, you might respond that you are willing to forego such benefits by donating them to organizations (such as B'Tselem, perhaps) that protect the human rights of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. You might add that, as an Israeli citizen, you have a responsibility to work toward achieving greater justice of your country's social institutions and policies, and that the kind of discussions with your fellow citizens that are central to such work would be very much harder to conduct from abroad.

In conclusion, I think that -- if you see the situation in roughly the way I have guessed in the preceding three paragraphs -- you can avoid both: being a participant in injustice and unfairly benefiting from the efforts of others who have joined the IDF. My sense is, though, that your government will not make this path as easy for you as you seem to expect.

What makes me obligated to respect the supposed property of others? It looks to

What makes me obligated to respect the supposed property of others? It looks to me like society apportion goods utilizing the purely selfish scheme of exchange. Some people have less ability to procure exchange than others but that doesn't make them more or less entitled to stuff than anyone else. If a person were to steal a line of credit in my name to finance a needed surgery what conceivable moral claim could I have against that person?

By "ability to procure exchange" you mean, I assume, money. So you are saying that the fact that some people have less money does not make them less entitled to stuff. Now this is often true, for instance in cases where those who have less have less on account of wrongs or injustices they suffered. But it's not always and certainly not necessarily true. Thus imagine two able-bodied and otherwise similar persons running a farm together. Suppose they agree to share the net proceeds (sales revenue minus expenses) in proportion to the work each puts in. And suppose one of them does 2/3 of the work and the other 1/3. So the latter has less money to spend than the former -- but isn't she also entitled to less?

A similar story could be told about two otherwise similar people who do equal work and have equal income. One has spent little and thus has a lot left. The other has spent a lot and thus has little left. The latter now has less money that the former -- but isn't he also entitled to less? Perhaps you believe that everyone should have an equal claim on all that is produced. But under such a system, claims would greatly outstrip production. There would be little incentive to work because one's claim to stuff would be no better than if one did no work at all.

Under the system just described, everyone would have a miserable life. Under a system that rewards contributions to the social product and keeps track of past consumption (so that someone who acquires part of the social product must pay for it and thereby come to be entitled to less than before), people are much better off. But running such a system requires that sufficiently many people respect the rules and accept, for example, that if they've spent their fair income for the week they are not entitled to get more stuff even while others (who still have money left) are so entitled. If others do respect these rules and we all benefit from the system, then it would be wrong of you to free-ride on others' compliance by breaking the rules and taking more.

Now in the real world, of course, economic systems are unjust to various degrees. In Libya, for instance, ordinary people have a lot less money than the ruling elite, but this does not render them any less entitled to stuff. So there, if an ordinary citizen finds a clever way to steal money from one of Gaddafi's accounts, Gaddafi indeed has no moral claim against him. But, if it's a lot of money, then other ordinary Libyans may well have a moral claim against him. What's in Gaddafi's accounts was embezzled from the sale of Libyan oil, after all.

The needed-surgery case you conclude with could go either way, depending on context. Suppose this happened in a rich country that makes no provisions for health care of the poor. So people die needlessly because they cannot pay for a simple appendectomy. If someone is in danger of suffering this fate under this (I would think) plainly unjust system, and if he knows that you are a wealthy beneficiary of this injustice (by saving a lot in taxes because the state makes no provisions for the vulnerable), then you may indeed have no moral claim against him if he steals the needed money from you.

But now suppose the case involves heart surgery and happens in a poor country which is simply unable to provide such expensive surgery to all who need it at public expense. People can buy insurance that covers heart surgery, but most buy a cheaper policy or rely on public services which cover the basics (including appendectomy but not including heart surgery). Now in this sort of case it would seem that you do have a moral claim against the needy person, especially if you earn no more than she does and she earned enough to be able to afford the better health insurance policy. She chose not to insure and is now trying to obtain the needed operation by stealing money from you. Suppose you know that, if you let her succeed with her theft, you would be unable to continue to buy the better health insurance policy for your family and thus would be putting the health of your family members at risk. Would it then not be morally permissible for you to stop her theft? I would think something even stronger is true: it would be wrong for her to try the theft. A poor society, even if justly organized, may not be able to meet all urgent needs of its members. If so, then it would be wrong for a person with a very expensive need that she had a genuine opportunity to insure against (but chose not to) to fulfill her own urgent need at the expense of causing basic needs of others to go unfulfilled.

Is stealing money stolen from me more ethical than stealing money justly owned?

Is stealing money stolen from me more ethical than stealing money justly owned? If it is, and I believe that the government or the upper classes have unjustly appropriated money belonging to my working class family for generations, am I justified morally in giving false information to the IRS in order to avoid paying taxes?

There are two weak spots in the reasoning you sketch. First, the expression "more ethical" is a bit slippery. If one does not pause to reflect, one may be fooled into thinking that, if something is more ethical, then it's ethical or permissible or (as you say at the end) morally justified. But this is not so. It's presumably more ethical (more acceptable, morally) to snatch a woman's purse than to take it while threatening her with a knife. But this does not mean that it is morally justified to snatch her purse. All it means is that it is less wrong to do so. (Some would say that wrongness, like pregnancy, does not admit of degrees; but here I agree with you that it does.)

This first weak spot can be avoided by saying instead that stealing money that was formerly stolen from you can be ethical or morally justified. And this seems correct in cases where (a) the money was justly owned by you at the time it was first stolen and (b) it was not stolen to meet some urgent needs of the thief or of others and (c) there is no proper public authority available for you to appeal to that would be both willing and able to retrieve the stolen money for you and (d) stealing the money back won't have disproportionately harmful consequences (e.g. by provoking violent escalation).

The second weak spot is that you move from your belief that something like conditions (a)-(d) obtain to your being morally justified. This is again a bit slippery. Think of self-defense here: you are permitted to defend yourself, violently and even with deadly force, if you are under serious attack. But it does not follow that you may use deadly force if merely you believe that you are being attacked. It is true that you really have only your beliefs to go on, you have no independent access to the truth. But to invoke self-defense you need to show that your belief was well-grounded, that it was reasonable for you, given the evidence, to reach the conclusion that you were under attack.

We can fix the second weak spot by requiring that you believe after careful deliberation (no time pressure here) and with good reason that the government or the upper classes have stolen money from you and your family. Are you then justified in cheating on your taxes?

I would think that you are. Consider recent events in Tunisia and Egypt, where corrupt cliques were in power for decades, directly and indirectly stealing billions from the society and transferring this wealth to Britain and Switzerland and elsewhere. Had you been a citizen in Tunisia or Egypt, would you have been required to pay your taxes, as legally prescribed, to the penny? Surely not. It would have been morally permissible to pay as little as you could get away with -- though if you were reasonably well-to-do, you should then also have used at least some of your illegal savings to fund some of the things that were not publicly funded in Tunisia and Egypt but would have been if these states had been justly organized (basic education and health care, perhaps, or income support for the families of people who become ill or unemployed).

Now you weren't asking about Tunisia or Egypt, but about the United States. In this case it is not so obvious that there is the kind of theft you are suggesting. The tax rules are adopted and enforced under the oversight of an elected legislature, and one might say that it is perfectly permissible for a population to vote to impose taxes on themselves despite the dissent of a minority. (We cannot achieve perfect unanimity; and if we allow dissenters to exempt themselves from all tax obligations, then we'll never raise the funds the governments needs for even its most basic functioning.) Of course, you might disagree with this, but you would need some argument here for the claim that uniform taxes imposed with the consent of a majority of citizens amount to stealing from non-consenters.

Alternatively, you could claim that a lot of our tax money is stolen not by our government but from our government. Rich people make or promise campaign contributions in the millions and are rewarded by governmental subsidies, special tax breaks, tax avoidance and evasion opportunities worth in the billions -- this essentially constitutes theft because these special breaks for the rich are not consented to by the people and are not at all in the interest of the general public.

I think the second line of argument is more plausible, and there is abundant evidence that this sort of stealing is happening on a massive scale. But these are cases where rich individuals and corporations with the aid of corrupt public officials are stealing public funds that should be going for the legitimate purposes of government. It is these rich individuals and corporations and corrupt public officials who are stealing our tax money. If counter-stealing is permissible here, wouldn't we have to target the thieves? If we steal from the government, the result is that even less money is available for the legitimate purposes of government. The fact that others a stealing money from our government, thereby degrading the education of American children, cannot make it alright for us to steal money from this government thereby ensuring that these same children must attend even more run-down public schools.

Now this objection can be answered. You can say that, instead of giving $100 to the government of which $20 will be stolen by the rich, it is better that I withhold the $100 by cheating on my taxes and then give $80 privately for important social purposes (such as basic education) that the government is currently -- perhaps because of all the theft -- under-serving.

There is still another objection to overcome. It will be said that citizens ought to fight the problem of political corruption in the US politically, rather than privately by withholding taxes. Ours is a basically democratic country, and if we spot injustice in our political system, then we should mobilize citizens to correct this problem. If you win a majority of citizens to your cause, then your cause will prevail. If not, then perhaps you ought to swallow the injustice in deference to your fellow citizens who choose to continue to authorize or at least to permit it.

This objection is surely not conclusive; the question you pose is complex. To argue it out for the case of the US would take rather more space (and time) than are here available. But this itself really highlights the key point: when you face a decision of consequence, the mere belief that you are about to do the right thing cannot justify your decision. Whether what you decide to do is morally justified depends on the soundness of the grounds you have for your belief. The belief that by cheating on your taxes you are merely avoiding theft of your money or counter-stealing money that had been stolen from you and your family earlier -- this belief is not obviously true (nor obviously false). It takes a good bit of further thought to come to a well-grounded judgment about it. Without such a well-grounded judgment in favor of this belief, you cannot claim with any confidence that you are morally justified to cheat on your taxes.

Is Rawls's theory of social justice reducible to rule utilitarianism? Rawls says

Is Rawls's theory of social justice reducible to rule utilitarianism? Rawls says we should adhere to rules that rational, selfish people would create if they were behind a veil of ignorance. Such people would create rules that maximize will maximize their expected utility once they are born. This means they will create rules that will maximize the total amount utility in the world, since you can expect to enjoy more utility on average in world that has more total utility. Now, rule utilitarianism says we should adhere to rules that when followed, produce the most utility. In other words, rule utilitarianism demands accordance to the exact same rules that people behind the veil of ignorance would agree to. So is Rawls effectively a rule utilitarian?

People have adduced something like the original position in support of rule utilitarianism. But Rawls believes that this is not the rational agreement to make behind the veil of ignorance. To see why, consider that an agreement to justify the society's institutional arrangements by reference to some standard of utility maximization does not guarantee that utility will actually be maximized. It is notoriously difficult to show in a publicly convincing way which proposed institutional design or which candidate piece of legislation would produce the most utility. So the agreement to make this the common public standard of justice would lead to a lot of division, and people with power would often deceive themselves or try to deceive others that what is best for their own will also maximize utility. Moreover, utilitarianism can notoriously justify very bad outcomes for small groups, who are likely then to lack allegiance to the society's justice standard and social institutions. All these things would be a drag on performance, so-to-speak, and a society that operates under a maximize-utility standard is then quite unlikely to maximize utility.

To protect against these problems, the contractors have reason, Rawls holds, to make a more substantial agreement, one that has more definite content and thus makes it easier for citizens to see whether or not the agreed-upon standard is being upheld. Thus Rawls's proposed first principle requires the society to secure certain basic liberties for all, without exceptions for cases where utility could be increased by infringing a liberty. Why should the parties agree to this? Because by allowing the government to make such exceptions they are likely to lose more utility from governmental mistakes and plain wrongdoing (that can be colored as an honest effort at utility maximization) than they can hope to gain from the exception being correctly used. Did politicians believe they were serving the happiness of Americans generally when they made it very hard for African-Americans to vote? Probably. And even if not, they could easily pretend sincerely to hold this belief.

Rawls had further arguments. The most important of these challenges the utilitarian assumption that all goods and ills are commensurable. Commensurability entails that for any ill, no matter how severe, there is a good and a probability p>0 such that one would be prepared to gamble, that is, to accept a probability p of the ill in exchange for a (1-p) probability of the good. Rawls holds, by contrast, that there are some really terrible ills that one has reason to avert with certainly, if this is possible. An example he gives is the suppression of one's religion. If you agree to the utilitarian standard, then you run a risk that you are religious and your religion is an unpopular minority faith that the majority suppresses by appeal to the general happiness. You can avoid running this risk by agreeing instead to a standard that (like Rawls's) explicitly requires and gives top priority to freedom of religion. If you understand what it means to be committed to a religion, would it not make sense for you to eliminate that risk even if -- the preceding paragraph notwithstanding -- this also reduced your probability-weighted expected happiness?

I am often conflicted with my feelings and empathy for people who smoke.

I am often conflicted with my feelings and empathy for people who smoke. On the one hand I empathize with individuals who are addicted to smoking despite it's known deleterious effects - you can say, I for one also make harmful decisions that affect my health such as my daily coffee fix, or my lacklustre efforts to exercise. And I'm sure many are guilty of such choices that may cause harm to themselves. On the other hand, I innately support governmental actions and policies to eliminate smoking, which incidentally means I support the actions to remove an individual's freedom or choice to smoke. So I succinctly ask: is this hypocrisy excusable? Secondly, as a society, we create laws which discriminate against smokers, but essentially by taking away their freedom of choice to smoke, we are saving their lives, hence is this form of discrimination justifiable?

Great question(s)! In reply, I suggest backing up a little. You describe your position as hypocritical and ask whether it might be excusable. If smoking is directly on a par (no better or worse) with your examples of abusing coffee and not exercising (or not doing so sufficiently), then I suppose there is an inconsistency that may be worrisome. The same point can be made about allowing alcohol legal use but banning cannabis. IF the two substances are equally dangerous (or good?), then why prohibit the one and allow the other? But there may be some differences in the cases you raise. "Contact smoke" can be a problem, but if so it seems very different from what might be called "Contact coffee fix" or "Contact lacklustre efforts to exercise." Also, smoking seems to direcly impair vital life functions / organs, whereas we seem to be less in danger of life-threatening harm with a "coffee fix" and only periodical exercising. So, I suggest that perhaps there is a principled way of distinguishing these cases and that you are not being hypocritical. Perhaps (and I write 'perhaps' as I am not sure) a clearer case of hypocricy is if you wanted to ban smoking to prevent harm to the smoker but you thought it perfectly fine to allow people not to wear seatbelts or bikers not to wear helmets. These cases may still differ (it is hard to imagine someone getting addicted to not wearing a seatbelt or helmet though though might become habitual).

For an excellent book on introducing restrictions on liberty, I highly recommend Joel Feinberg's Harm to Self.

According to libertarians, a fair price is simply whatever a buyer and a seller

According to libertarians, a fair price is simply whatever a buyer and a seller can agree on. Critics of libertarianism say this enables exploitation, because a person in desperate circumstances might have to agree to a low price if she is to sell anything at all (ie. sweatshop workers). If we reject the libertarian definition of a fair price, what other metric can we use to determine whether a price is fair?

In first approximation, the fair price is the one that would emerge in a well-structured open market if the existing distribution of socio-economic positions were replaced by the one that would exist in the absence of historical wrongs under just social institutions (leaving all else -- and especially the current stage of technological and economic development -- constant).

This answer accepts the libertarian position for the special case of just social institutions but rejects it for conditions of injustice. Stated in this way, most libertarians would agree. They would agree, for example, that transactions in a feudal society (which leaves landless persons no choice but to subject themselves to the authority of a landlord) do not establish fair prices even when buyer and seller agree. Still, libertarians, Rawlsians, socialists, etc., have quite diverse views about what just social institutions would be like. So, while they can all formally accept the answer I have given, they will not thereby be led to the same fair price.

Many libertarians criticize our society for having too much government. According to them, a just society would be one in which the state does not get into education, health-care, social security, and the like, but confines itself to maintaining security through a military and a criminal justice system. In such a libertarian society, inequalities of income and wealth would be much higher than they are in ours because inequalities would accumulate over generations as the children of poor parents cannot even obtain basic health care and basic education. There would then be ample supply of menial labor, and the wages for such labor would be much lower than they actually are in the US. By combining my answer with such a libertarian theory, we thus reach the conclusion that the price for menial labor in the US today is far above what a fair price would be.

A Rawlsian would reach the opposite conclusion. If US citizens had roughly equal opportunities to influence the political process (in Rawls's language: if the fair value of the political liberties were maintained) and if the socio-economic position of the poor were raised as high as is feasible (in Rawls's words: if the Difference Principle were satisfied), then disparities in social starting positions would be much narrower, the supply of menial labor much smaller and the wages for such work substantially higher than they are. So, to avoid taking advantage of injustice, you might have to pay more for menial labor than the going market price (if you subscribe to Rawls's theory of social justice).

Given the legacies of colonialism, slavery, and genocide, pretty much any theory would lead to the conclusion that the price of labor in the poor countries is unfairly low. Some libertarian theories would disagree, however, on the ground that similarly extreme inequalities would have evolved under libertarian global institutional arrangements even if there had never been any force or fraud. Such libertarians would then accept as fair the very low wages for sweatshop work. But they would also acknowledge that grave historical wrongs have played a crucial role in placing many sweatshop workers in a situation where such work is their best option as well as in placing others into affluent conditions with abundant opportunities. These libertarians would then say that, even though the current wages for sweatshop labor are roughly fair, the historical selection of those compelled to do this sort of work is nonetheless unjustifiable.

In light of the recent leaking of hundreds of thousands of American classified

In light of the recent leaking of hundreds of thousands of American classified documents related to the Afghan and Iraq wars by Wikileaks, I have been considering the issue of freedom of information, particularly the right of governments to withhold information from the public. While in some cases such secrecy is easily understandable (releasing the names and homes of Afghan informants, for example, would make the informants useless to the military while simultaneously endangering the lives of the selfsane informants and their families), there are other cases where I cannot understand how the government can morally justify withholding information from the public (for example, the notion that the American military was paying Afghan radio stations to run positive stories about occupation forces). Other cases, pertaining to brutalities committed by enemy forces, seem even less easy to hide away. So my question is, insofar as releasing the information doesn't directly endanger lives, does the government...

The justification goes something like this. The United States is under various current and potential threats from foreign sources. It is the government's responsibility, as a matter of national security, to keep these threats at bay and perhaps to neutralize them. This task can be made easier or much harder by public attitudes within the US itself. The US failed to prevail in the Vietnam War, for example, because many of its citizens were no longer willing to accept the aerial bombardment of villages with napalm and cluster bombs. To effectively safeguard the national security of the United States and to protect its citizens, it is necessary, then, to establish and maintain a widespread willingness among the American people to support US foreign and military policy. This in turn makes it necessary to withhold from the American people, or to sanitize, any information that might adversely affect their support. Concealing war crimes committed by US soldiers, US contractors or US allies is often as important, or more important, to national security than concealing the identity of our intelligence assets. In the long run, we could not maintain our prominent place in world affairs if we had to compete with one hand tied behind our backs: we must be able to conduct our foreign and military policy without disturbance by the American people just as the Chinese are able to conduct their foreign and military policy without disturbance by the Chinese people.

To be sure, I do not agree with this line of argument. But it is widely accepted among those in power and even by many ordinary citizens. So it's interesting to ask yourself: what if anything is wrong with a people democratically authorizing its government to withhold, at its discretion, any information about its foreign activities whose release it judges likely to have adverse consequences for national security? Would it merely be foolish to give such far-reaching authorization to a government? Or would it be morally wrong by abnegating our inalienable responsibility to monitor and constrain the enormous power our government is wielding abroad in our name?

Generally speaking, rights and responsibilities seem to go hand-in-hand. Yet in

Generally speaking, rights and responsibilities seem to go hand-in-hand. Yet in the discourse of human rights, there is seldom talk of human responsibilities - although human rights are in a sense responsibilities of the State towards its citizens. On the one hand, this makes sense, because to establish a set of human responsibilities to be taken as seriously as human rights would mean essentially coercing certain behavior out of citizens, rather than merely providing them with a platform for self-realization, as human rights do. It seems, however, that the quality of a society is not dependent merely on the freedom of its members, but also on their involvement and consideration for one another. Given this consideration, I am curious as to whether any philosophers have elaborated on a theory of "human responsibilities", to complement our current human rights scheme. If so, what do these responsibilities look like?

Here are a few things you might want to look at.

In 1997, the InterAction Council drafted a UniversalDeclaration of Human Responsibilities, see

In 2002 the Fundacion Valencia Tercer Milenio published a Declaration of Responsibilities and Human Duties, available at

Somewhat more detailed and useful are some of the General Comments produced under the auspices of the United Nations (see As one example, see General Comment 14 on the human right to the highest attainable standard of health.

Onora O'Neill has long written about the need to achieve greater clarity on who is required by human rights to do what for whom. See her books Towards Justice and Virtue and Bounds of Justice.

And, if it's permissible, I'd also mention my own book World Poverty and Human Rights: Cosmopolitan Responsibilities and Reforms.

There's a logical scenario which often comes up in discussions around the

There's a logical scenario which often comes up in discussions around the question of voting. We all know the conversation... Person 1: I don't vote because my vote has no impact on the outcome of the election. Person 2: Not on it's OWN it doesn't, but if everyone thought that, no one would vote, and THEN what would happen?! Person 1: But I don't decide whether all those other people vote, I only have control of my 1 vote! My question here relates not to whether or not one should or shouldn't vote, or to the voting example alone, but rather to the logic of this situation. For this example let us assume (for the sake of the point I am interested in) that it is universally agreed that all people (including Person 1 and 2) agree that nobody voting is an outcome that everyone wishes to avoid. And also assume (despite the conversation above!) that everyone decides privately whether to vote or not, such that their decision cannot influence others decisions) Finally assume that the election involved has...

I don't think there's a named fallacy here, but I do think the principle proposed by Person 2 is unsound. If this principle were sound, then it would be impermissible to remain childless even in a world as overpopulated as ours.

The principle can be revised to be more plausible. When many people in some group are making a morally motivated effort to achieve a certain good that would not exist (or to avert a certain harm that would not be averted) without their effort, then one has moral reason to do one's fair share if one is a member of this group. This sort of principle against free-riding on the moral efforts of others can explain why one should generally vote and do so conscientiously -- at least unless one has conclusive reason to judge that enough others are already acting and that one's own effort will therefore add nothing to the outcome.

But there is also a more direct explanation of why one ought to vote. As philosopher Derek Parfit has argued, the extremely low probability of one vote affecting the outcome is compensated by the extremely large moral importance of the outcome. Thus Person 1 would likely concede that one ought to vote in "small" elections where one's vote may very well affect the outcome, e.g. in the mayoral election of one's tiny home village -- with 62 other voters, say. In this case, the probability that one will cast a deciding vote is a whopping 10 percent.

I derive this percentage as follows. With 63 people voting, there are 63!/(32!*31!) voting patterns where one side wins by one vote and an equal number of voting patterns where the other side wins by one vote. I divide this sum by the total number of voting patterns -- 2^63 -- to estimate the percentage or probability of "extremely close" outcomes. I then multiply by 32/63 to reflect the fact that only 32 out of the 63 people voting have actually cast decisive votes. More generally, for any odd-numbered electorate of 2n+1 voters, the probability that any given vote will be deciding is (2n)!/(n!^2*2^2n).

Now suppose you live in a town with four times as many other voters: 248. Do you now have less reason to vote? You'll be less likely to affect the outcome. But the outcome also matters more from a moral point of view -- nearly four times as much, I would think, because the new mayor will be seriously affecting the lives of nearly four (249/63 times) time as many people as in the first scenario.

While Parfit concluded that a morally motivated person has as much reason to vote in a larger election as in a smaller one, I can strengthen his conclusion by showing that the moral reason for voting actually becomes ever more weighty as the size of the electorate increases. This is so on the assumption that the importance of voting is proportional to the expected impact of the vote, that is, to the magnitude of the impact of the outcome multiplied by the probability of casting a deciding vote. The former of these factors is proportional to the size of the electorate. The latter of these factors is roughly proportional to squareroot (1/n). Thus, in the village of 249 voters, the probability of casting the deciding vote is still 5.06 percent, about half of 10.09 percent rather than merely a quarter. The expected impact as defined then goes up roughly with the square root of the size of the electorate. A public-spirited voter, then, who considers equally the impact of the vote upon all citizens, arguably has, other things being equal, more reason to vote the larger the election in which s/he is eligible to vote.

Here are the numbers from a quick spreadsheet calculation, showing the number of voters (yourself included), the probability of casting a deciding vote, and the expected impact (probability of casting a deciding vote multiplied by the overall number of voters):









We see here that the probability of casting a deciding vote declines roughly with the square root of the size of the electorate. Assuming that the moral importance of the outcome increases roughly with the size of the electorate, we can conclude that the expected moral impact (and hence the strength of the moral reason in favor) of voting increases roughly with the square root of the size of the electorate.

In a US election, you might have about 120 million votes cast, so here your probability of casting a deciding vote is about 0.0073% (keeping the electorate constant, we can expect one in 6850 US elections to be decided by one vote) and the expected impact of your vote (continuous with the above calculation) is about 8740. Note that, if your vote is deciding in such an election, then a lot of other votes are also, like yours, deciding votes: in the simple case I have been discussing (assuming only two choices and leaving aside complications such as the US Electoral College), you would be one of 60,000,001 people each of whom was needed to outvote 60,000,000 others.