David Myers, Ph.D., puts forth the idea that individual rights exist only as much as people are willing to defend them.
Photo by Bruce Gilbert

At a recent symposium, three Fordham professors took on a direct question: “What are rights, who has them, and why do they exist?”

That was the title of a forum at O’Keefe Commons on the Rose Hill campus, where the three professors—of philosophy, theology and history—exposed the full complexity of a frequently invoked concept. They took questions from faculty in natural sciences, sociology, political science and psychology.

The Office of Research is holding many similar events around the University to promote discussions across disciplines and highlight the research done under Fordham’s faculty development program.

Philosophy professor Michael Baur, Ph.D., J.D., kicked off the Oct. 6 event by addressing the conflict between two views: that rights are inviolable, and that they may be trumped by social needs.

He said an alternative is the classical view: that rights are inviolable, but relational; that is, they can only exist within a system of justice that promotes equal treatment of individuals.

“We can’t begin to talk about rights if we can’t first specify what we mean by justice, and justice always means justice as equal treatment in some relevant respect,” he said.

He drew analogies with weight, which requires gravity, and a dollar, which requires a system of exchange if it is to have any value.

For instance, he said, in this view theft is always wrong, but it’s valid to take from another to help someone who is in danger of dying for lack of aid—“not because violating a right becomes legitimate; because, rather, on the classical account, when one cannot live and another has a surplus, there is no proper relation of equal treatment.”

The next panelist, theology professor Charles Camosy, Ph.D., speaking from the Christian ethicist tradition, said the Catholic Church distinguishes between rights that apply in all situations, and those that can only be understood in a social context.

For instance, he said, in this view there is no context that justifies torture, rape, or killing the innocent. But when the church asserts a right to healthcare, he said, a social context is required.

“If we say that there’s a right to healthcare, and we have limited resources and virtually unlimited health care needs, we need to start making conscious, specific choices, and not let the idol of Western capitalism—that we can have as much as we want, whenever we want—run free rein,” he said. “I hope this is one thing we all took away from the healthcare debate.”

History professor David Myers, Ph.D., the third panelist, made a point about rights by looking to the 17th century.

He told the story of a young woman in the territory of Lower Saxony who, in 1661, was prosecuted for infanticide despite a lack of evidence—no one had ever seen the baby that was allegedly killed—and the torture that was used to elicit a confession.

She was convicted of a lesser charge, publicly whipped, and sent into exile. Her lawyer’s vigorous claims about the rights of the accused continued to resonate, however, eventually finding their way into pre-Enlightenment legal treatises throughout the Holy Roman Empire.

He told the story to show rights as an achievement and an ongoing project.

The lawyer “didn’t change the world, he didn’t get his client off the hook, he didn’t get $30 million for the family,” Myers said. “But he did demonstrate what I think to be an important point: No matter how inalienable, no matter how endowed by their creator, no matter how intrinsic to the nature of justice and humanity itself, rights only really exist if someone is willing to go out and defend them.”


Chris Gosier is research news director for Fordham Now. He can be reached at (646) 312-8267 or [email protected].