Michael Baur, Ph.D., presents, “The Truth about Rights.”
Photo by Bruce Gilbert

Graduate students and scholars from around the world convened at Fordham on Feb. 24 and 25 for the Fordham Philosophical Society’s fifth biennial international graduate conference.

Hosted by Fordham’s Department of Philosophy, “The Truth of Ethics” attracted attendees from as far as Amiens, France to present at the two-day conference.

Delivering the conference’s plenary lecture, “The Truth about Rights,” Associate Professor of Philosophy Michael Baur, Ph.D., argued for the utilitarian notion that rights are meaningful only within social contexts. Rights do not exist in a vacuum, he said, but rather exist because there are individuals who live in community as equals, and who are entitled to certain things.

“To possess a right… is not to possess a power or liberty or natural property, such as the property of having earlobes or kneecaps, that one would possess apart from any relation to others. Rather, to possess a right is to occupy a place within an order of justice, according to which two or more individuals are related to one another as equals in some relevant aspect,” Baur said.

He pointed out, however, that utilitarians also argue that rights are not guaranteed.

“Even if there is such a thing as ‘rights,’ these utilitarians argue, such rights—including even the ‘right to life’—are necessarily relational, and thus have meaning only within the context of a larger social whole,” Baur said. “As a result, the argument goes, the supposed ‘rights’ possessed by individual human beings are never inviolable or unconditional, but instead are always negotiable and subject to being ‘traded away’ for the sake of greater social utility.”

However, he said, the premise that rights are relational does not necessarily mean that rights are therefore negotiable. A social community might take away a certain good if there is an urgent reason to do so, but the individual’s right to that good still remains, he said.

For example, if members of the criminal justice system take away a convicted criminal’s freedom, it does not mean that the criminal justice system has the ability to take away the overall right to freedom.

The conference keynote lecture was delivered by Stephen Darwall, Ph.D., the Andrew Downey Orrick Professor of Philosophy at Yale University and the John Dewey Distinguished University Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Michigan.

Darwall’s lecture, “Morality’s Distinctiveness,” challenged participants to think critically about the concept of “morality,” which often is used interchangeably with the term “ethics.”

“We can use ‘moral’ and ‘morality’ in any way we like, but though the terms are sometimes used broadly as synonyms for ‘ethical’ and ‘ethics,’ the sense I have in mind here is… morality’s ‘narrow sense,’” he said.

According to Darwall, the concept of morality has been in contention for millennia. In the end, though, our modern concept of morality has ultimately become juridical. Specifically, we largely view the concept as involving a strong connection between our moral obligations and being accountable to these obligations.

In addition to the Department of Philosophy, the conference was sponsored by the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the Graduate Student Association, the Fordham Philosophical Society, the Office of the Provost, the International Philosophical Quarterly, and the Center for Ethics Education.

–Joanna Klimaski