a1 Philosophy, Tufts University
1. The question “Why do we have the rights we do?” obviously presupposes that we do have some rights; that is, that propositions of the form ‘We have the right to x,’ or of the form ‘We have the right to do (or to have) x,’ are true for certain values of x. The same issues would arise if the original question had been formulated, or were to be reformulated, as it sometimes is, in a purely existential manner, viz., “Why are there the rights there are?” I believe there is no difference between the two questions except a verbal one; at least, both of them share the same existential presupposition to the effect that there are certain rights. I mention this point for two reasons. One is merely to acknowledge the trivial but true point that the question in my title does have an existential presupposition. The second and more important point is that since I shall have very little to say about any actual rights, I would not want anyone to infer from my silence that I do not think we have any rights. I accept the presupposition of my original question, but I shall not dwell upon it.
2. One might ask my original question and mean by rights, legal rights, that is, rights identified through the legal provisions of some legal system. That is not the sense in which I pose the question. It is true that a legal positivist would be able to give no intelligible meaning to my question except by treating it as equivalent to asking, “Why do we have the legal rights we do?” However, since I am not a legal positivist, I want my question understood in another way.