Climate Change and Rights Talk

05/21/2015 08:47 pm ET | Updated May 21, 2016

Where does talk about rights get you? A climate talk I listened to last week began from a familiar starting point in arguing for the obligations of the Developed World to the rest: rights. Citing the Declaration of Human Rights, the claim was that humans have a right to life, liberty and justice, but also food security, housing, economic well being and ...the contrast here is between what philosophers call negative rights and positive rights. Negative rights arise out of what are sometimes called duties of non-interference.

I have a duty not to interfere with your freedom of speech for example. Positive rights are duties I have to do things for you -- like a duty to provide you with food. Philosophy is pretty good at generating an account of negative rights. One way to do that is to start with the idea that the benefits of cooperative living bring us into inevitable conflict with each other as we live cheek by jowl. It is in all of our interests to limit the kinds of interferences that can arise under these circumstances. The idea is to maximize our own freedom consistent with rendering the same to others. But none of that generates a duty for any of us to do things for each other. A duty not to drown you is different from a duty to save you if you are drowning. We may collectively arrive at such a positive duty. But it does not flow out of the negative duty. Note that rights here don't come at the beginning of these arguments, they come at the end. They are the conclusions of arguments not premises.

So what about a right to things like food security, housing, economic well being and so on? Of what arguments are these the conclusions? I am not saying there are no such arguments. Just that they need to be provided. You can't get these rights by just stamping your foot. The beauty of negative rights is that you can get them out of nothing. That is because they arise out of a mutual interest in restraining our behavior. By parallel reasoning, positive rights might come out of our having a mutual interest in assuming obligations. I am not saying you can't do that. But maybe that is not necessary in the area of climate. Anthropogenic climate change is an effect of our actions. Those effects are visited on some more than others and on many who are not agents of those actions. Why don't these actions violate duties of non-interference?

Leave aside the thorny question of whether we have such duties toward Nature. (Moral philosophy falls very much in the domain of human affairs and we have difficulty extending it except to other agents. It is easy to think of extending it to non-human agents. The problem is of thinking of Nature as an agent.) Why doesn't the Developed World's action violate duties of non-interference toward the Developing World? Suppose you and I share a well. I foul it, or take all the water. I have done something unfair. I owe you something. Did I violate some duty of non-interference? If so, toward what? Your right to the water?

Then we are back to positive rights even if now it does not generate a duty for me to render something to you. But where does your right to water come from? If there is no water, can you stamp your foot and demand it? From whom? What seems more plausible to say IF there is water, you and I have a right to an equal share to it. (Again this leaves Nature and the problem of rights talk toward it out of the picture.)

At least in understanding our obligations toward each other, a prima facie principle of equal share is all we need. The Developed World's historic obligation does not need to be derived from positing all sorts of rights. The Declaration of Human Rights is in the end a political statement not a philosophical one. The philosophical grounding is simpler to finesse.