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Definition of rights explored in annual Shoen Lecture

September 27, 2010

Most people consider their “rights” as a list of things that should be provided to them, like education, health care or privacy.

But some philosophers like Jeremy Waldron, University Professor at the New York University School of Law, are looking at rights from a different angle, in terms of responsibilities.

“When you think about some of our rights, the right of jury service, it’s a duty as well as a right,” Waldron said. “Gays are demanding the right to serve in the military and are insulted that they are not given the ‘right’ to discharge that duty. And parental rights are as much a responsibility as a right.”

In fact, if some “responsibility-rights,” like parental rights, are not discharged well, there can be legal repercussions, such as having your children taken away from you.

Waldron will explore the idea of rights as responsibilities and how that affects the idea of human dignity in his speech, “Dignity, Rights, and Responsibilities,” which will be delivered as the third annual Edward J. Shoen Leading Scholars Lecture at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law.

The lecture is scheduled for 12:15 p.m., Oct. 1, in the Great Hall of Armstrong Hall on Arizona State University’s Tempe campus. It is presented by the Arizona State Law Journal, and is named for Edward J. “Joe” Shoen, Chairman and CEO of AMERCO, the parent company of the “U-Haul®” System. For free tickets, go to

Waldron is considered one of the foremost legal and political philosophers in the world. In addition to his position at the NYU School of Law, Waldron is the Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at All Souls College at Oxford. He was born and educated in New Zealand, where he studied for degrees in philosophy and in law at the University of Otago.

He was a Barrister and Solicitor of the Supreme Court of New Zealand, studied at Oxford for his doctorate in legal philosophy, and taught at Oxford University as a Fellow of Lincoln College. He also taught political theory at the University of Edinburgh and was a professor of law in the Jurisprudence and Social Policy Program in the School of Law (Boalt Hall) at the University of California, Berkeley.

“Jeremy Waldron is one of the leading legal philosophers in the world, and we are privileged to welcome him to campus,” said Paul Schiff Berman, Dean of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law.

Waldron said he became interested in the idea of “responsibility-rights” when the British Labour Government circulated a proposal in 2008 to add a Bill of Responsibilities to the Human Rights Act. Waldron, who was in England at the time, was invited to participate in the debate about this proposal, writing several papers about the issue. The proposal ultimately failed with the fall of the Labor Government. It remains to be seen whether the Conservative/Liberal-Democratic coalition will revive it.

Waldron has woven his analysis of the “rights” issues into his longtime research in the area of human dignity, and has found an intriguing intersection.

“There is a question of whether we have a responsibility not just to uphold the dignity of other people, but a responsibility to refrain from degrading our own,” Waldron said.

There has been a movement in Europe and South Africa to outlaw prostitution not as a criminal issue, but because prostitutes are demeaning themselves.

“Some believe that dignity is one of our fundamental natural rights, that it is inalienable, and can’t be given up or sold,” Waldron said.

For example, some French municipalities have outlawed a practice known as “dwarf-tossing,” a bar attraction in which dwarfs wearing special padded clothing or Velcro costumes are thrown down bowling lanes, onto mattresses or at Velcro-coated walls.

The municipalities outlawed it saying the dwarfs are responsible for preserving their own dignity despite the protest of some dwarfs who say it is their right to negotiate and make money.

Waldron said the idea is also part of a “communitarianism” movement, which emphasizes the need to balance individual rights with that of the community as a whole.

“Some people think we are getting too individualistic, too occupied with our rights,” Waldron said. “It’s just me, me, me. And they see the Bill of Rights as a charter for criminals. They think we need something less one-sided, something that balances the rights of the majority with the rights of the individual.”

However, Waldron added that this line of thinking makes some people nervous because it feels paternalistic, and makes rights into burdens rather than freedoms.

“You could apply the argument to the issue of abortion, and say that when you have a pregnancy, you have a responsibility to take care of that entity,” Waldron said.

The Edward J. Shoen Leading Scholars Lecture Series is named in honor of Edward J. “Joe” Shoen, Chairman and CEO of AMERCO, the parent company of the “U-Haul®” system. Mr. Shoen, who graduated from the College of Law in 1981, also holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and is a graduate of the College of Holy Cross. He grew up in the U-Haul® organization, worked in various positions while putting himself through college, and has been associated with AMERCO since 1971. He was elected Chairman and CEO in 1987.

Judy Nichols,
(480) 727-7895
Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law