Social Philosophy

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By Christopher Groves (auth.)

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118) s/he belongs to (a consideration, in other words, from behind a ‘veil of ignorance’). The two principles Rawls argues any rational agent in this position should choose as the basis of any distribution of goods are those of equality (equal chance of access to primary goods, no matter who one is) and difference (any inequalities in access to goods must be arranged so as to benefit the ‘least favoured’ in each case). Instead of a contractarian approach based on the actual ability of agents to reciprocally affect each other’s interests, this represents a variety of a contractualist approach in which, thanks to the ‘veil of ignorance’, the equal moral status of all agents must be assumed, and the interests of all agents – including future ones – must be taken into account.

Some have argued that it makes no sense to grant rights to future generations, as to possess a right means that one should be able to exercise the claim that it represents (Steiner 1983) or that talking of non-existent people’s possessing rights makes no sense, thanks to the grammar of the expression ‘to have’, which rules out a non-existent possessor (de George 1981). These understandings of the meaning of rights are challenged by Joel Feinberg’s argument in support of the idea that rights can be derived from the idea of an interest.

These understandings of the meaning of rights are challenged by Joel Feinberg’s argument in support of the idea that rights can be derived from the idea of an interest. According to Feinberg, the exercise of choice is not necessary to possess a right, as many classes of moral persons do not have such a capacity – such as children, those with learning difficulties, and so on (Feinberg 1974). What grants them rights is that they, as living and sentient beings, have a ‘good of their own’ and a ‘conative life’, compounded of ‘desires’ and ‘aims’.

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