Resurrecting Rights

Alan Gewirth attempts to give moral and political principles objective grounding


Reason and Morality, by Alan Gewirth, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1978. 393 pp. $20.00.

This is a decidedly unfashionable book. For it eschews virtually every dominant trend in 20th-century Anglo-American normative philosophy. It proclaims the objectivity of ethical values in an age chiefly distinguished by relativism. It traces the source of those values to certain invariant features of human nature—blasphemy to the contemporary theoretician. Its politics are absolutist; human beings have certain demonstrable rights that are implied by their nature and that no majority or elite may overturn. Add to these delightful and unexpected qualities the systematic and synthetic powers associated with an older tradition in professional philosophy, and you have a work of magisterial importance.

To be sure, there have recently been certain signs of discontent with prevailing views in moral and political philosophy, and the additions to the axiological landscape contributed by Alan Gewirth in his new work have to some extent been anticipated. To name the most prominent precursors:

• John Rawls, in A Theory of Justice, argued that political principles are not arbitrary human conventions but are conventions that could command unanimous assent from suitable rational and unbiased observers. But he left unanswered the question, Are these hypothetically adopted conventions, in fact, just?

• Robert Nozick, in Anarchy, State, and Utopia, maintained that human beings have prelegal rights to which every juridical code and convention ought to conform. But he didn't present an argument for these rights.

• Ronald Dworkin, in Taking Rights Seriously, contended that the legal process recognizes that there are permanent, inflexible human rights. But he omitted a demonstration of the soundness of that working principle.

Clearly, there has been some movement away from the doctrinal biases of the moral and political relativists; but it has not been decisive, until now.


Alan Gewirth has correctly grasped that if moral and political principles are to have an authority that can command universal assent on rational grounds, all vestiges of subjectivity in their derivation must be rooted out. Moral principles must be anchored in certain unalterable facts about the world, so that their truth can be as unquestioned as their empirical warrant.

In this aspiration, Gewirth runs afoul of a central dogma of modern moral and political philosophy, which maintains that values can never be inferred from facts. The author of this doctrine, the 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume, held that any collection of facts, no matter how complete, can convey only how it is that human beings in fact do behave, not how they ought to behave. Gewirth's work is written to overturn this thesis.

Gewirth claims that the subject matter of ethical principles, human action, is the very source of their verifiability. For human action embodies certain determinant characteristics that prescribe for individuals how to conduct their affairs appropriately. Every human actor, says Gewirth, obviously aspires to the various objectives of his actions. And in so aspiring he implicitly claims a right to what is required in order to realize those objectives. These requirements consist of the freedom and well-being of the actor, both of which are essential features of all action. But if each actor implicitly claims a right to these, because they constitute the generic conditions of action, then he must extend this claim to all of his fellow actors. And this proves, says Gewirth, that rights are universally held by mankind.

From this conclusion, Gewirth derives what he takes to be the regnant principle of all morality, the Principle of Generic Consistency (PGC). This principle instructs all moral agents to "act in accord with" others' as well as one's own generic rights. Since these rights are absolute and definite, they are prescriptive for every sector of human conduct, private, social, and political. Gewirth elucidates their various applications in the last half of his book.


Personal virtue, for Gewirth, consists in the development of characteristics that will enhance one's effectiveness in purpose fulfillment: courage, temperance, and prudence. In regard to social conduct, Gewirth concludes that a series of duties are implied by the PGC. First, there is the negative obligation of noninterference with others' individual freedom and well-being. Second, there are positive duties to aid others whose freedom and well-being are threatened or deficient, where one is able to do so without incurring the risk of significant harm to oneself.

These two types of duties, in turn, have implications for the kind of political arrangements Gewirth endorses. While he at first argues for a minimal State that would protect civil and other liberties, he ultimately supports a State with redistributive and regulatory powers far more extensive than those necessary to defend freedom. These powers, according to Gewirth, are granted for the purpose of a more equitable distribution of the conditions of well-being.

Believing that the rights that he has derived are inalienable and are, therefore, not produced by, but antedate democratic processes, Gewirth argues for a constitution that specifies their inviolability. The protection of these rights, but not their existence, he would leave to legislation. In this respect Gewirth's views are virtually identical with those of natural-law theorists who subscribe to a moral law of natural origins that regulates all human codes and institutions.

The book also contains incisive analyses of a wide variety of moral-political issues, traditional and contemporary. With respect to nonhuman entities, for example, Gewirth indicates that these acquire rights precisely to the extent that their behavior is informed by volition and purpose. Thus, animals and fetuses have rights, albeit very limited ones. If these rights conflict with those of an adult normal human being, the latter, whose capacities for purposive and voluntary action are far greater, take precedence.


While meticulously argued, Gewirth's position is not without problems. The implicit rights claim made by all agents is just that—a claim. Gewirth's argument, then, appears only to establish what rights people implicitly claim, not what rights they in fact have. It is the latter that Gewirth obviously wishes to defend, but without that defense, he does not establish that people ought to recognize others' rights/rights claims.

Although Gewirth defends property rights, he never precisely defines them nor describes the process by which one acquires title to property. Yet this is particularly important because these rights directly conflict with the redistributive function of his State.

Gewirth defends redistribution as the appropriate means to protect the right to well-being. Yet, perhaps revealingly, he omits this right from the constitutional framework that guarantees all prelegal rights, thereby leaving to democratic discretion its protection.

And there is something indeed peculiar about this right to well-being when contrasted with the right to freedom. A violation of the latter is univocal; a murder 2,000 years ago is an injustice equivalent to a murder today. Rights to well-being, however, which imply positive duties on some others' part and hence imply the redistributive function of the State, may vary according to technological and other circumstances. Dying from smallpox in the 15th century would have been a morally neutral occurrence, whereas today, from Gewirth's perspective, it would involve a rights violation on the part of those who have the vaccine.

It is certainly odd that the defender of the incorrigibility of rights should sanction their multiplication and variability when they involve claims to well-being. Moreover, Gewirth confuses the right to the substantive means of well-being with its more fundamental predecessor, the right to the freedom to create such means. How can he fail to realize that an enforcement of the former will inevitably involve violations of the latter?

Despite these flaws, the philosophical significance of Gewirth's work in this age of moral skepticism and relativism is not to be written off. For it signals a rebirth of the natural rights-natural law tradition in secular garb and a renewed effort to close the gap between the previously divided realms of fact and value.

Jeffrey Paul is a professor of philosophy at Northern Kentucky University. He is the editor of a forthcoming collection, Reading Nozick.