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90 Mich. L. Rev. 1569 (1991-1992)
Realm of Rights, The. By Judith Jarvis Thomson

handle is hein.journals/mlr90 and id is 1591 raw text is: THE REALM OF RIGHTS. By Judith Jarvis Thomson. Cambridge:
Harvard University Press. 1990. Pp. viii, 373. $35.
The nature and moral force of rights is one of the most frequently
recurring themes in Western philosophical and political discourse.1
What does it mean to have a right? Which of many contenders de-
serves to be a called a right, and who possesses them? What are the
sources of rights? These important questions confront all those who
believe that part of being human is possessing certain rights.2 Judith
Jarvis Thomson's latest contribution to this discussion is The Realm of
Rights,3 an engaging and insightful investigation into ethical theory.
Thomson's approach to rights theory differs in two ways from that
employed by most authors. First, she focuses primarily on what hav-
ing a right means instead of analyzing what rights we do or should
possess.4 Second, the arguments she advances concerning what rights
we possess do not depend primarily on any particular analytic device
or teleological conception of humanity. Instead, she argues from vari-
ous assumptions, some concerning the moral content of particular ac-
tions and some concerning how most persons would view such
The Realm of Rights consists of two distinct but related sections.
The first, Rights: What They Are, is the more interesting and un-
common of the two.6 Thomson first separates rights into claims, privi-
1. At least as early as Socrates, Western philosophers have explicitly considered rights and
their sources. See, for example, Plato's Apologia, where he discusses Socrates' views concerning
individuals' freedom of conscience and religion. Recent important attempts to provide rational
and complete methods of understanding rights include ROBERT NOZiCK, ANARCHY, STATE,
2. Most modem philosophers follow the traditional practice of suggesting that the rights
enjoyed by humans are not similarly enjoyed by animals. Exceptions are becoming increasingly
prominent. Sea e.g., ALDO LEOPOLD, A SAND COUNTY ALMANAC (1966). In fact, it has been
seriously argued that the biosphere we call earth is in an important sense an entity which has
rights. See, eg., Iredell Jenkins, Nature's Rights and Man's Duties, in LAW AND THE ECOLOGI-
CAL CHALLENGE 87 (Eugene E. Dais ed., 1978) (arguing that humanity has a moral duty to
decree its own extinction to preserve the earth). Thomson does not subscribe to this approach.
3. Judith Jarvis Thomson is Professor of Philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Tech-
nology. Thomson's previous works include ACTS AND OTHER EVENTS (1977) and RIGHTS,
4. This is in contrast with most important modem investigations of rights and ethics. See,
e.g., RAWLS, supra note 1; SANDEL, supra note 1.
5. In this respect Thomson is reminiscent of Ronald Dworkin, who also eschews rights para-
digms derived from first principles in favor of investigations premised upon a small number of
what he considers widely held beliefs concerning morality. See RONALD DWORKIN, TAKING
6. Many authors have attempted to argue, from virtually innumerable starting positions, that
certain sets of rights belong to certain groups of peoples or entities. See, e.g., THOMAS AQUINAS,
ON LAW, MORALITY, AND POLITICS (William P. Baumgarth & Richard J. Regan eds., 1988)


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