Have philosophers covered the subject of how individual rights could lead to absurdities?


For example, one person or more could hypothetically acquire all fresh water in the world and limit or bar other people from having access to drinkable water (see Tragedy of the anticommons, Inelastic demand and Water privatization).

Has this subject been discussed anywhere?

James P.

Posted 2016-09-24T00:22:13.297

Reputation: 395

2This is maybe related to the tragedy of the commons, though it's distinct; and maybe tangentially to utility monsters? – Joseph Weissman – 2016-09-24T02:35:48.910

1For some views, there's a hierarchy of human rights where certain rights take precedent over others. For other views, as Joseph is suggesting, you can't necessarily take rights to things held in common possession as an individual (or your rights are always limited with respect to those things). – virmaior – 2016-09-24T04:30:23.463

I find it unlikely that a single person could acquire all "fresh water" to the detriment of everyone else, unless everyone else in this hypothetical world is a also sucker. Trade is a bilateral voluntary swaps, and no one but a sucker would agree to a trade that would worsen his lot (that is, unless it leads to a Pareto improvement, no swap is made). This is just be me splitting hairs, since a similar problem might be conceived without making reference to trade.

– ejQhZ – 2016-09-28T18:24:07.660


@ejQhZ What you say is a real-world consideration. However, there is concern about water privatization by more then one single person and prevention of using a resource by rightsholders is refered to as the tragedy of the anticommons.

– James P. – 2016-09-29T08:40:39.447


@ejQhZ The question here is about the UDHR in general and drinkable water was just an example. There is no explicit reference to trade here but what you describe is an ideal and a monopoly or oligopoly could impose an exchange that is to the detriment of another party.

– James P. – 2016-09-29T08:41:23.010

@JamesP. I agree with what yoy say, to some degree. That's why I mentioned "splitting hairs", since whether or not trade leads to a Pareto improvement is irrelevant if some people already don't have access to "fresh water" prior to trading, and in this case some of the sellers might also collude and gain market power. But they can't impose a detrimental exchange, but only exploit a preexisting unfair distribution of resources. The similar problem I've mentioned is exactly the problem of whether these starting allocations should be redistributed or not. – ejQhZ – 2016-09-29T17:19:13.773


@JamesP. If you think that the two problems are similar enough, then an argument could be made using the Rawlsian veil of ignorance to argue that it's in the best interest of all that those who are rich enough give out to those in need because, well, it could've been them. A professor of mine once made this same argument (I think there's a econ paper on this) as one possible justification for welfare systems.

– ejQhZ – 2016-09-29T17:25:09.853

Have philosophers covered the subject .... => YES, THEY HAVE. No matter the subject. ;) – Philip Klöcking – 2016-09-30T08:46:19.540

@PhilipKlöcking Guardians of the Galaxy - Nothing Goes Over My Head Scene.

– James P. – 2016-09-30T10:25:47.177



There is an overall critique of 'rights' as a moral category. A lot of it is captured by Glendon, who is discussed here: http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/whats-wrong-with-rights/. It has many dimensions, but some of them are easy to capture as logical contradictions.

First, they are categorical, they are either being violated or they aren't, and life is not that binary. So you can have contradictions like the notion of the right to life in a world where everyone dies, leading to insane expenditure to save an individual life that then depletes resources and causes others to die. So we don't really have the right, we have the wish we had the right, and the obligation to consider those wishes somewhat equally.

Second, they are adversarially posed, so they lead to the construction of enforcement mechanisms that often automatically break them. The right to order and stability, maintained locally by the existence of states, more globally creates wars in which humans are swept into chaos and violated in unspeakable ways. So we don't really have the right, we simply have the opportunity to control how it gets expressed when it happens to exist.

Third, they are individual. We can mandate a right to property, but some property is only useful if it is shared. Property rights to a waterway, for instance mean nothing if someone uses their property right to the part upstream from you to build a dam and divert the water. Then the waterway to which you have the property right does not exist. So neither of you really have that right, you have something more complex and negotiated that cannot really be framed as a right on either party's part.

Fourth they automatically create responsibilities, but do not assign those to anyone. We may consider it a right to have a fair and impartial justice system. But that doesn't mean that our justice system won't make itself corrupt and racist. So again, we don't really have the right, we have the obligation to hold the intention to have the right, so we fix these problems when they arise.


Posted 2016-09-24T00:22:13.297



Certainly since Thomas Hobbes (and possibly before), rights have been framed within the context of a governing body responsible for them. The European Convention on Human Rights was set up at the same time as a Court specifically designed to interpret and rectify conflicts that may arise. So a simple answer would be yes, philosophers from Hobbes right up to the ECHR have certainly assumed that some body would be required to negotiate the conflicts.


Posted 2016-09-24T00:22:13.297

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