Colloquium: Oct. 18th 2019

Speaker: Chelsea Rosenthal, Simon Fraser University

Title: Rights in an Uncertain World

Friday, October 18th at 2:30 in CLE A303


Governments often force us to help others (e.g., through taxation to fund social services), even when those others couldn’t permissibly force us, themselves. And this asymmetry is sometimes used to raise objections to government social programs. Underlying this challenge seems to be the idea that, even if we morally ought to help others, we’re entitled to exercise wide discretion regarding who we help when, and to what extent (that is, we have what philosophers have traditionally called an “imperfect duty”). According to this challenge, both governments and individuals will be unable to enforce positive, socio-economic rights without violating duty-bearers’ rights. In rejecting this challenge, I argue that many of these cases are better understood as cases where our obligations to help aren’t discretionary – there’s some fact of the matter about what we should be doing – but its content is difficult to discover. It won’t depend only on a momentary interaction – it will depend upon a wide variety of facts about the duty-bearer’s life that others usually don’t know and aren’t entitled to. Given this uncertainty, private individuals often have a moral obligation to defer to duty-bearers about the content of these non-discretionary duties. But governments may not be similarly situated (given e.g., the information they collect through tax returns). So we may be able to explain why governments can permissibly enforce duties corresponding to positive, socio-economic rights, even when individual rights-holders can’t engage in similar forms of self-help. And in the process, we can address some conceptual puzzles about imperfect duties, with many turning out to be cases of epistemic limitations, rather than genuine entitlements to discretion.