Rights, Capabilities and the Good Society

33 Pages Posted: 28 May 2011

See all articles by Robin L. West

Robin L. West

Georgetown University Law Center

Date Written: May 25, 2011


In Part I this essay explores and then criticizes the two major arguments behind the conventional wisdom that rights undermine efforts to secure a state role in ensuring the material preconditions for a good society, and therefore, the material preconditions for the development of those human capabilities essential to a fully human life. I conclude in this part that this understanding of rights is mistaken. In Part II, I urge that the pragmatic argument put forward by rights critics and some welfare advocates for forgoing rights-talk and rights-rhetoric also fails: there are very real costs, both in theory and in law, in deciding to forgo putting the case for the state's obligation to provide minimal material goods in terms of rights. In Part III, I briefly describe two core rights that a refashioned liberal state, understood as a vehicle for protecting not just the liberty but also the capabilities of citizens, should recognize: first, a right to be protected against private violence, and second, a right of caregivers to give care to dependents without incurring the risk of severe impoverishment or subordination – a right, to use the provocative phrase coined by the philosopher Eva Kittay, to doulia. Both rights, I think, are directly entailed by the state's obligation to provide the minimal preconditions for the development of those fundamental human capabilities that are themselves essential to a fully human life. Both rights however, could be and should be conceived in the most traditionally liberal terms. The first such right – the right to protection against private violence – although now disfavored in United States rights discourse, seems fully authorized by both the liberal tradition and the American Constitution itself. The second right for which I will argue – the right to provide care to dependents has no similar basis of support in either liberal theory or American constitutionalism. It is not incompatible with either, however, and is at least arguably required by the deepest commitments of both. The right to protection and the right to care are rights that can be framed in liberal terms, and both rights would go a long way toward securing for individual citizens the minimal preconditions of a good society.

Keywords: good society, welfare state, constitutional rights, right to a minimum level of well-being, fundamental human capabilities, protection against private violence, state obligation

JEL Classification: K10

Suggested Citation

West, Robin L., Rights, Capabilities and the Good Society (May 25, 2011). Fordham Law Review, Vol. 69, 2001, Georgetown Public Law Research Paper No. 11-54, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1847984

Robin L. West (Contact Author)

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States

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