Rights and the Direction of Duties

Lead Research Organisation: University of Stirling
Department Name: Philosophy


Our project will explain what it means to owe someone a duty. Directed duties are owed to specific people (e.g. my duty to my neighbour, to do what I promised her) while undirected duties are not owed to any particular person (e.g. my duty to be benevolent). What does this distinction signify? Do these different types of duty require different forms of behaviour from their bearers? And what determines to whom a directed duty is owed? Answering these questions will throw light on an issue at the heart of contemporary moral, political and legal debates: the fundamental nature of rights.

Rights are among the central concepts in modern politics, ethics and law, but the two main theoretical traditions have reached a stalemate over what exactly they are: the 'will theory' maintains that rights' distinctive function is to provide right-holders with control over another person's duties, while the 'interest theory' maintains that rights' distinctive function is to protect interests through duties. The difference between these theories shows up in differing judgements about a range of cases including promissory rights, unwaivable rights and the rights of beings incapable of waiving duties, such as babies and animals. To take one example, suppose I promise you that I will care for your mother. The interest theory seemingly allows that both you and your mother can have a right that I care for her in this context, because my caring will serve both your interests. By contrast, the will theory charges the interest theory with being insufficiently discriminating; it denies that your mother can have a right that I care for her in this case because only you, as recipient of the promise, can waive my duty. The vital issue of who has a right in this case remains contested. In our view, which approach is correct depends, at least in part, on the direction of duties. Whether your mother has a right that I care for her because of my promise depends on to whom my duty to care for her is owed: is it owed to you, or to your mother too? Similarly, whether babies and animals can hold rights depends partly on whether they can be owed duties. An account of directed duties is, we believe, a necessary precondition for resolving the long-running disputes over the nature of rights in these and further cases.

In addition, our account of directed duties will clarify a range of related claims that seek to restrict what can qualify as genuine rights: claims that the only genuine rights are non-interference rights (e.g. Nozick, Lomasky), that rights must correlate with 'perfect' duties in Kant's sense (e.g. O'Neill), and that rights must entail duties that are non-maximising 'constraints' (e.g. Nagel argues that my duty not to murder you entails that I should not murder you even to prevent a larger number of murders). We will assess these claims by examining under what circumstances assistance duties can be directed duties, how directed duties relate to 'perfect' duties, and whether all directed duties are 'constraints'.

These issues carry potentially wide-reaching implications for both public policy (e.g. our project will illuminate whether states owe their citizens duties to assist them, derived from citizens' rights, and whether animals and babies can legitimately be ascribed legal rights) and personal morality (e.g. our project will illuminate whether my duties to assist my family are non-maximising 'constraints', or whether I should be willing to violate family ties when this would produce better results overall). We are committed to investigating these practical implications and disseminating our findings.

The 2-year project will produce a substantial body of research in the form of four journal papers, an edited special edition of a journal, workshops and discussion meetings, plus the development of a network of researchers to take work on these important issues forward and to disseminate our results to academics and practitioners.

Planned Impact

Not Required


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Cruft R (2014) Griffin on Human Rights

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Cruft R (2015) Human Rights Law Without Natural Moral Rights in Ethics & International Affairs

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Cruft R (2013) XI-Why is it Disrespectful to Violate Rights? in Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society (Hardback)

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Cruft, R. (guest Editor) (2013) Symposium: Rights and the Direction of Duties in Ethics

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Rowan Cruft (Author) (2013) Introduction* in Ethics

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Wenar L (2013) Rights and What We Owe to Each Other in Journal of Moral Philosophy

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Wenar L (2013) The Nature of Claim-Rights in Ethics

Description The project focused on analysing the nature of duties 'owed to' others, as opposed to 'undirected' duties. The main development has been a new theory of duties' direction in which the recipient's role or kind plays a major part. This account maintains, to put it roughly, that a duty is owed to whoever, given their role or kind, wants the duty fulfilled. As roles can be socially constructed, this makes 'directionality' something that can be constructed whenever it would be useful, and this raises questions for the common notion that what it is to respect a person's fundamental moral status is determined by the morally justified duties owed to them.

Preliminary papers on the treatment of duties and rights by Scanlon, Miller and Kamm (see outputs) have now been supplemented by Leif Wenar's major paper developing his view that a duty is owed to whoever wants it fulfilled, given their role or kind (see 'The Nature of Claim-Rights' in outputs). This is a new theory of duties' direction, and Rowan Cruft builds on this theory, using it to illuminate some difficulties in our conception of the moral importance of non-individualistically grounded duties and rights (including property rights in particular), in his major paper 'Why is it Disrespectful to Violate Rights?' (see outputs). This work on the relationship between duties and respect is supplemented in a further paper by Cruft, 'Human Rights, Human Agency and Respect', in Reading Griffin on Human Rights, ed. R. Crisp (OUP 2014). The theory has continued to inform our recent work, for example in Cruft's critical review of Buchanan's work on human rights, and most centrally in Cruft's new British Academy monograph project on rights and the individual. Other authors have begun to look in detail at Cruft's and Wenar's work in this area, with new papers focused on this work forthcoming (2017) in Philosophical Studies, Ethics and similar leading journals.

Wenar's paper, 'The Nature of Claim-Rights', is the central focus of a discussion here: http://peasoup.typepad.com/peasoup/2013/04/ethics-discussions-at-pea-soup-leif-wenars-the-nature-of-claim-rights-with-critical-precis-by-arthur.html

A podcast of Cruft's presentation of an early version of his paper, 'Why is it Disrespectful to Violate Rights?', along with the text of the draft, is available here: http://www.aristoteliansociety.org.uk/the-proceedings/the-programme/rowan-cruft/

Since then, Cruft received a British Academy mid-career fellowship (2016-17) to develop the new theory of directed duties further, resulting in the Addressive Theory developed in his recent book, Human Rights, Ownership, and the Individual (OUP 2019).
Exploitation Route The account of a duty's direction is especially useful in thinking about the justifiability of rights language in politics and the law.
Sectors Education,Government, Democracy and Justice,Security and Diplomacy

Description Our conception of the nature of rights has informed our ongoing work on the place of human rights vis-a-vis other rights, which has itself informed policy interactions - e.g. Cruft's work with the Leveson Inquiry, or Wenar's work on property rights and international trade. Wenar's most recent book, Blood Oil (OUP 2016), engages closely with the morality of the oil market, and is underpinned by some of his work on this project; it has led to a range of policy proposals in Europe, the US and South America. Cruft's work on Human Rights, Ownership and the Individual (OUP 2019), which distinguishes between the moral grounds of human rights (as rights justified by how they serve the individual right-holder) and property rights (grounded on the collective good) is perhaps even more closely tied to the foundational work on rights pursued in this project - and is informing his current work on rights' place in the public sphere.
Sector Government, Democracy and Justice,Security and Diplomacy
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

Description British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship
Amount £92,748 (GBP)
Organisation The British Academy 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2016 
End 12/2016