PHIL 2120: Introduction to Ethics
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Wednesday November 17, 2010



[10.] Moral Rights in the Workplace.


The notion of rights (human rights, moral rights) has played an important role in philosophical thinking about morality for centuries.


Not all moral philosophers have taken rights to be morally important, though; and some have been downright dismissive of the very idea that there are such things as rights. For example, the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) wrote: “Natural rights is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense—nonsense upon stilts.”[1]


This sort of view is in line with utilitarianism in general, for whom talk about rights is never primary. Utilitarians, if they acknowledge rights at all, will say that it is morally good to accord people rights if and only if doing so has good consequences overall. From this point of view rights are not morally important in themselves. They are important only insofar as they serve to secure overall well-being (or happiness, or preference satisfaction).


Nevertheless, “rights talk” is both common and of central concern within contemporary professional ethics. And it is to that sort of talk that we now turn our attention. We will focus more closely on rights and examine in what ways they are relevant within business and the workplace.


The first step is to get clear on exactly what a right is.



[10.1.] MacCallum’s Analysis of the Concept of a Right.[2]


The following is a widely-cited triadic (three-place) analysis of the concept right by philosopher Gerald MacCallum (1925-1987, professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin—Madison):


For there to be a right is for (1) an agent to have (2) a specific kind of demand for (3) some object.


1. Agent: The agent of a right is the person or other being to whom the right belongs. Presumably, all human beings have rights (although this was not always widely accepted in the Western world, e.g., slaves and women were denied rights that other human beings were acknowledged to have). It might be the case that some non-human animals also have rights and would therefore count as agents.


2. Demand: a right can involve either of two different kinds of demand:

·         rights-as-privileges, a.k.a. negative rights; a demand for noninterference from others (e.g., it is plausible to think that I have a right for you not to assault me, not to prohibit me from speaking, not to prohibit me from worshipping as I please, etc.)

·         rights-as-claims, a.k.a. positive rights; a demand for some specific action from others (e.g., if you and I have agreed to exchange money for a product—say, we have agreed that you will repair my car in exchange for $200—then, once you repair my car, you have the right to $200, i.e., you have a claim against me that I give it to you).[3]


3. Object: the thing to which the agent has the right. The object of a right need not be a physical object; it is anything to which anyone can have a right; e.g., if I have a right to privacy, then my privacy is the object of that right, even though privacy is not a physical thing.



[10.1.1.] Rights and Duties Revisited.


MacCallum’s analysis is consistent with a claim about rights that we examined earlier in the semester: for every right there is a corresponding obligation.


For example: if I have a negative right, say, the right not to be physically assaulted, then other people have a corresponding obligation, viz., the obligation not to assault me.


Another example: suppose we enter into a sales agreement, such that I will pay you $1000 and in return you will give me a comic book (say, a mint condition copy of Uncanny X-Men #94). I then pay you $1000. It seems natural to say that I have a right to that comic book. This is a positive right, a right against you that you will give me the comic book. You have a corresponding duty: you are now obligated to give me the comic book.


So, if x has a right, then there is some entity y that has a corresponding obligation, either to omit doing something with regard to x (in the case of negative rights) or to do something with regard to x (in the case of positive rights).



[10.2.] Three Types of Employee Rights.


DesJardins distinguishes the following three meanings of the term “employee rights”:


1.      legal rights: “rights granted to employees on the basis of legislation or judicial rulings” (115 / 124). Such rights include:


2.      contractual rights: rights to “goods that employees are entitled to on the basis of contractual agreements with employers” (115 / 124), e.g., rights to “a specific health care package, paid holidays, pension funds,” etc.


3.      moral rights: “entitlements to which employees have a claim independent of any particular legal or contractual factors. Such rights would originate with the respect owed to them as human beings.” (115 / 124, emphasis added) They are the “general moral entitlements that employees have to certain goods (or to protection from certain harms) within the workplace. They establish the basic moral framework for employer-employee relations.” (116 / 124)

·         Like legal rights, moral rights serve as constraints on the contractual agreements. “To the degree that there are such rights, employees cannot be asked to forgo these goods to get a job or to gain an increase in employment benefits. [Moral] rights function to prevent employees from being placed in what would be a fundamentally coercive position of having to choose between these basic moral goods and their job.” (116 / 124)


Our primary focus will be on moral rights rather than legal or contractual rights.



[10.3.] Is There a Moral Right to Work?


[10.3.1.] Three Senses of “Right to Work.”


The expression “right to work” is ambiguous; it can mean any of the following three things:


1.      A right to be employed without having to join a labor union:


labor union (df.): a.k.a. “union”; an organization of employees formed in order to engage in collective negotiations or bargaining with an employer.[5]


Twenty-two states, including Georgia, have right-to-work laws, which prohibit collective bargaining agreements in which unions stipulate that all employees will join the union upon being hired.[6]


2.      A right to a job, i.e., a right to be employed.


3.      A right, once hired, to hold one’s job with some degree of security and not to be fired without good cause. (This is a right to due process.)


In the following material, we are focusing on sense (2); we will return to sense (3) in the next set of notes.


If people do actually have a right to a job, then (in MacCallum’s terminology), it is a right-as-claim / positive right. That is, it is a right to have someone else perform some specific action. If x has a right to a job, then there must be another party, y, who has the duty to provide a job for x.


We will consider two arguments in support of the claim that people do in fact have a moral right to be employed.



[10.3.2.] The Argument from Necessity.


1.      Being employed is a necessary condition of getting the things a person needs to live: food, clothing, shelter, health care, etc.

2.      If x is a necessary condition of getting the things a person needs to live, then people have a right to x.

3.      Therefore, people have a right to employment.


This argument is valid (i.e., if both its premises were true, its conclusion would have to be true, as well).


But are both of its premises true?


Premise one is true about most people in our society...


Is premise two true?


This argument may be a better justification of a right to any job that pays a living wage, no matter how tedious or unfulfilling it is. The second argument, if sound, supports an even more ambitious claim...






[10.3.3.] The Argument from Human Fulfillment.


1.      Employment “is part of the expression of a meaningful human life.”

2.      If x is part of the expression of a meaningful human life, then people have a right to x.

3.      Therefore, people have a right to employment.


This argument, if it is sound, may ground a right, not just to any job that pays a living wage, but to a fulfilling, meaningful job.


This argument is valid (if both its premises were true, its conclusion would have to be true, as well). But are both of its premises true?



[10.3.4.] Responses to the Arguments.


1.      That a state of affairs is desirable does not, by itself, imply that someone has a right to it. It is true that it would be a good thing for everyone (or at least everyone who wants one) to have a job; but this does not mean that everyone (or everyone who wants one) has a right to a job. So premise two in each argument is false.


2.      Who has the obligation to provide employment? If x has a right that is a right-as-claim, then there is a corresponding person (or other entity) who has an obligation to provide x with the object of that right. A right to a job, if there is such a thing, is a right-as-claim, a right that obligates someone else to employ the person who has the right. But there is no obviously correct answer to the question, “Who has the corresponding obligation?” If no plausible answer to this question can be found, then premise two in each argument is false.



Possibility #1: Private employers. Private companies have the obligation to provide jobs to those who want them.


Problems with this answer:

a.       No company can provide jobs for all possible employees and still remain in business; it will become unprofitable and soon won’t be able to employ anyone.

b.      A potential employer’s obligation to hire other workers is limited by her own personal rights, including her own property rights. Personal rights are not unlimited, and employers do have certain obligations toward other people, but those obligations do not extend to the obligation to hire anyone who wants or needs a job.



Possibility #2: Government. The government (federal, state or local) has the obligation to provide jobs to those who want them, either by hiring them directly or by providing incentives (e.g., subsidies or tax incentives) to private employers. Governments have obligations towards their citizens that other citizens and private companies do not, and providing employment is one more of these obligations.


Problems with this answer:

a.       As a matter of practical fact, no government can provide a job to everyone who wants one, because it would result in the same sort of economic inefficiencies that would be found if private employers attempted to do so.

·         The problem is not that the government would become unprofitable (since making a profit is not the purpose of government). It is that it is impossible to increase taxation enough to pay every potential worker without compromising government’s ability to do the other things it must do.

b.      If the government has an obligation to one of its citizens, it has the same obligation to every other. Since the government cannot be obligated to employ all its citizens, it cannot be obligated to employ any of them.



Possibility #2 (modified): Government as employer of last resort. The government’s obligation is not to employ all citizens, but rather to employ all qualified citizens who are unable to find work in the private sector. This avoids the problems described above.

·         As DesJardins notes, the problem with this sort of government employment program is a matter of degree: to what degree is it practically possible for a government to serve this role?

·         On this approach, it would be necessary, as a matter of practical fact, for a government to strike a balance between attempting to employ every qualified unemployed person (which could lead to an unsustainable downward spiral: taxation to fund new jobs drains money from the public sector, putting more public sector workers out of a job, requiring that the government hire more… etc.)  and completely ignoring those who need jobs.



Stopping point for Wednesday November 17. For next time, continue reading DesJardins ch.6 (pp.120-25).




[1] Bentham, Anarchical Fallacies; Being An Examination of the Declarations of

Rights Issued During the French Revolution By Jeremy Bentham, in THE WORKS OF JEREMY

BENTHAM 489 (John Bowring ed., 1843), supra note 3, at 501.


[2] Gerald MacCallum, “Negative and Positive Freedom,” Philosophical Review 1976; reprinted in Miller, ed., Liberty, 1991.


[3] Recall that D. W. Haslett maintains that we have general negative obligations and rights (obligations not to harm others and rights not to be harmed by others), but not general positive obligations and rights (obligations to help others and to be helped by others). (“Moral Taxonomy and Rachels’ Thesis,” Public Affairs Quarterly, 1996)


[4] United States Department of Labor, URL = < > , retrieved November 16, 2010.


[5] In the United States, the legal right of employees in the private sector to form unions was established by the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. Recently, Congress has considered a bill, the Employee Free Choice Act, which would change the mechanism by which labor unions can be formed, in a way that permits union organizers to establish a union by gathering consenting signatures from a majority of employees. Critics of the Act say that it infringes on the right of employees to vote on such matters by secret ballot. For example, see George McGovern, “My Party Should Respect Secret Union Ballots,” Wall Street Journal, August 8, 2008, URL = < >, retrieved March 1, 2009 (subscription only); and Richard Epstein, “Obama’s Welcome Silence on the Employee Free Choice Act,” Forbes, February 10, 2009, URL = < >, retrieved November 16, 2010.


[6] “Frequently-asked Questions,” National Right to Work Committee, URL = < >, retrieved March 1, 2009 [no longer online].

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