Are rights just an idiom for really strong moral rules? (By "really strong," I mean that these rules typically take precedence over other rules.) For example, when we say that someone has a right to life, is that just another way of saying that it's immoral to kill people? Or are rights supposed to be somehow different in kind from other moral rules?

Some philosophers (utilitarians most notably) would agree that rights are "an idiom for really strong moral rules" that typically (though not necessarily) take precedence over other moral considerations. In the language made popular by Ronald Dworkin, rights function as "trumps," i.e., to have a right is to be protected against certain kinds of mistreatment even if that mistreatment would have very good consequences. So (for instance) a right to a fair trial is a right to be judged on the basis of certain procedures and evidence even if suspending those procedures might have very good consequences.

But many philosophical advocates of moral rights would likely assert that while rights are really strong moral rules, when we say 'she has a right to X' we are saying something more than 'it would be immortal not to provide her X'. Rights are personal entitlements, claims to be treated in particular ways by others. Talk of rights thus seems aimed at capturing our sense that individuals are morally important over and above their place within groups or larger wholes. Rightholders are protected against certain forms of mistreatment by others. Rights talk thus reflects the sense that individuals are sources of moral worth, not simply interchangeable 'parts' of some larger ethically salient whole. It's thus not surprising that 'rights' have been strongly associated with individualism in political philosophy and with 'deontological' theories of morality.

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