Between rights and gifts: a comment on 'Human rights, global ethics, and the ordinary virtues' by Michael Ignatieff.

Author:Lichtenberg, Judith
Position::Article in this issue, p. 1

I am honored to have the opportunity to comment on Michael Ignatieff's illuminating discussion of the relationships between human rights and the ordinary virtues. Ignatieff reminds us of the conflict between the local and the universal, the citizen and the stranger, the communal and the cosmopolitan. Yet his remarks demonstrate to me the inadequacy of the dichotomy between the discourse of rights--human rights in particular--and the language of virtue and gifts. There must be more than just these two ways to think and talk.

To many people it seems pretty clear that the typical refugee does not have a moral or human right to haven in a particular country. Imagine a refugee from a country in the Middle East. Assume we agree that this refugee makes some moral claim on U.S. citizens, at least because of previous military and political involvement by the U.S. resulting in some responsibility on its part for the upheavals creating refugees. Does this refugee have a moral right to sanctuary in the U.S.? If so, then so do lots of other people. But surely there are limits to the number of people the U.S. can reasonably accommodate. Philosophers like to say that rights and duties are correlative. This means that rights entail duties or obligations: if A has the right to an adequate standard of living then someone (or some institution) has a duty to provide it. If B has the right to immigrate to Canada, then Canadians have a duty to let B in. But suppose there are many, many refugees?

As understood in political discussions and on the world stage, human rights rarely meet the strict standards of this correlativity thesis. Not all the rights set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights can be satisfied, certainly not without complex policies and institutions with assigned duties not now in place. One alternative is to say that at least some of the human rights in the document are "aspirational"--they express what we aim to bring about, not what is morally required right now. But if the rights-entail-duties thesis is too strong, to many people the aspirational view is too weak.

Ignatieff offers a different alternative. He argues that "the language that works" is not the language of human rights but "the language of the gift. The language of hospitality. The language of generosity." But this approach also strikes me as problematic.

One question for Ignatieff is whether he thinks the gift approach is about pragmatics rather than truth. It's...

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