Res Publica

, 17:227 | Cite as

Rights Enforcement, Trade-offs, and Pluralism



This paper asks whether (human) rights enforcement is permissible given that it may entail infringing on the rights of innocent bystanders. I consider two strategies that adopt a rights-sensitive consequentialist framework and offer a positive answer to this question, namely Amartya Sen’s and Hillel Steiner’s. Against Sen, I argue that trade-offs between rights are problematic since they contradict the purpose of rights, which is to provide a pluralist solution to disagreement about values, i.e. to allow agents to act in accordance with their values. I further argue that Steiner’s compensation strategy does not succeed in avoiding trade-offs so it falls prey to the same criticism. I propose a non-trade-off solution that is implicit in the accounts discussed and is more consistent with the meta-ethical framework advocated by Sen. This solution relies on an enforceable duty to share in the costs of rights enforcement hence it entails a degree of redistribution for enforcement purposes.


Conflicts of rights Trade-offs Enforcement Consequentialism Agent-relative reasons Pluralism 



I want to thank Elizabeth Ashford, Nir Eyal, Maria Paola Ferretti, Chloë Fitzgerald, Anca Gheaus, Axel Gosseries, Mark Reiff, Massimo Renzo, Daniel Schwartz, Shlomi Segall, Hillel Steiner and Nicholas Vrousalis for very helpful written and/or verbal comments as well as the audiences at the ALSP Annual conference, April 2008, the Society for Applied Philosophy conference, July 2008, and two anonymous referees for this journal.


  1. Caney, Simon. 1997. Diversity and the lexical priority of the right to equal freedom. Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 17: 147–163.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Dworkin, Ronald. 1984. Rights as trumps. In Theories of rights, ed. Jeremy Waldron, 153–167. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Fabre, Cécile. 2007. Mandatory rescue killings. Journal of Political Philosophy 15: 338–363.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Hart, H.L.A. 1984. Are there any natural rights? In Theories of rights, ed. Jeremy Waldron, 77–91. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Nagel, Thomas. 1979. The limits of objectivity. The Tanner lectures on human values. Available at Accessed 1 April 2011.
  6. Nozick, Robert. 1974. Anarchy, state and utopia. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.Google Scholar
  7. Pettit, Philip. 1987. Rights, constraints and trumps. Analysis 47: 8–14.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Sen, Amartya. 1982. Rights and agency. Philosophy & Public Affairs 11: 3–39.Google Scholar
  9. Sen, Amartya. 1990. Welfare, freedom and social choice: a reply. Recherches Economique de Louvain 56: 451–485.Google Scholar
  10. Steiner, Hillel. 1974. The natural right to equal freedom. Mind 83: 194–210.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Steiner, Hillel. 1990. Putting rights in their place. Recherches Economique de Louvain 56: 391–408.Google Scholar
  12. Steiner, Hillel. 1994. An essay on rights. Oxford, UK & Cambridge, USA: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  13. Steiner, Hillel. 2008. Self-ownership and conscription. In The Egalitarian conscience: essays in honour of G.A. Cohen, ed. Christine Sypnowich, 88–102. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  14. Thomson, Judith Jarvis. 1992. The realm of rights. Cambridge, MA & London, England: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  15. Vallentyne, Peter, Hillel Steiner, and Michael Otsuka. 2005. Why left-libertarianism is not incoherent, indeterminate, or irrelevant: a reply to Fried. Philosophy & Public Affairs 33: 201–215.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Waldron, Jeremy. 1981. A right to do wrong. Ethics XCII: 21–39.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Waldron, Jeremy (ed.). 1984. Theories of rights. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.CRÉUM, Université de MontréalSucc. Centre-Ville MontréalCanada

Personalised recommendations