The Notion of a Right

A right is an entitlement to certain goods; either an entitlement to some actual thing (“positive” rights) or an entitlement to freedom in the pursuit of goods (“negative” or “liberty” rights). A right implies a consequent duty on some specific person (or persons).

Kinds of rights

Legal rights: entitlements created by and usually guaranteed on the basis of legislation of judicial rulings. For example: a right to a minimum wage, equal opportunity, collective bargaining.

Contractual rights: entitles created by an oral or written agreement between two parties. For example: a right to have certain holidays paid, pension funds, a specific health care package.

Moral rights: entitlements that are neither legal nor contractual, that lie outside human legislating or bargaining power. These rights are therefore fundamental identifying fundamental constraints on all relationships, the employer-employee relationship included. They would also be constraints on any negotiations that occur between workers and employers—moral rights cannot be forgone by employees or employers in order to gain something else (a promotion, etc.). These rights are justified by moral considerations, not legal ones.

A philosophical problem

Do moral rights exist?

Well, even though you cannot see, touch, or otherwise, observe them, entitlements exist. There is no question about this in the case of legal and contractual rights—they exist because we have created them.

There is a real question about the existence of moral rights—can such rights exist if they are not created? The Declaration of Independence asserts that there are inalienable rights, whose existence is “self-evident to all men.” On the other hand, Jeremy Bentham, a 19th Century philosopher, considered the idea of natural rights “nonsense on stilts,” as silly as talking about a son without a parent.

What’s your view on this fundamental question?

The importance of rights

Rights are particularly important in those social situations where one party is vulnerable to the other. Rights are invoked to protect human interests. A right creates a duty on the part of the other party to respect the interests of the weaker party. Legal rights protect our real vulnerabilities from those in power; contractual rights too protect us when we are vulnerable to the other party. There is no doubt that we have natural vulnerabilities: we can easily lose our lives, lose our freedom, or have our pursuit of a happy life thwarted, by other individuals. Is that reality enough to prove that we have natural rights to these things?

Work is an important and highly valued part of our lives, but it is also one where the workers have little control: employers determine many aspects of our working lives. Worker rights are the means to protect us from the actions of employers.

The moral basis for rights

The basis for recognizing employee rights are the moral principles of autonomy, freedom, and human dignity. No one denies that these things exist, that they are morally valuable, and that we ought to recognize them as so.

Two arguments try to dismiss employer obligation to respect these rights:

  1. The Hierarchical Management argument: this argument based on the widespread belief that efficient management is incompatible with a fair workplace environment. Corporate efficiency, goes the argument, must sacrifice employee rights; without strict discipline, an authoritarian work style, and firm maintenance of management prerogatives, our economic system would collapse, employees would not attend to their jobs, and companies would lose their competitive edge.

This argument is based on a factual claim, that business success requires this kind of management. An increasing body of evidence however suggests just the opposite. Companies have tried situations that respect employee rights and share decision-making and have remained competitive and succeeded.

  1. Employment-at-will argument: this argument cites that legally employers have a free hand in hiring and firing their employees. This right is incompatible with respecting employee rights.

Basic Issues in Employee Moral Rights

Some current controversies about employee rights (2004)