The Elements of Politics

Henry Sidgwick

Chapter 2

Fundamental Conceptions of Politics

§3. In the preceding discussion I have spoken of law as determining the (legal) rights and obligations of private members of the community. The terms used in this definition, though sufficiently familiar, require some further explanation in order to make their import as clear as possible.

Let us begin by considering the term ``legal obligation''. By this we express the relation of a general rule or command, enforced by the authority of government, to the member or members of the community whose civil conduct it is intended to control. The law is conceived as exercising a certain constraint on the will of such person or persons and it is this constraint that the term ``obligation'' expresses. A similar constraint is exercised in the case of ``moral obligations'' by the conscience of the individual who lies under the obligation, and the moral opinion of the community of which he is a member. {Note}

It is not quite so easy to see what is meant by the term ``legal right''; and perhaps the most convenient way of making this clear is to examine the relation of Rights to Obligations according to the ordinary use of both terms. A little reflection will show that we cannot conceive Rights of any one individual without corresponding Obligations imposed on others. Thus A's right of property in any material thing necessarily implies obligations imposed on B, C, D, etc., to abstain from interfering with A's use of the thing: similarly any right to services that A may have in consequence of a contract implies that the other party to the contract is under an obligation to render the services: so again, if a child has a right to education, some one is under an obligation to educate it. It is not, however, similarly clear that the imposition of Obligations on one or more individuals always involves the granting of Rights to other persons. Consider (e.g.) the legal obligation on Englishmen to abstain from suicide, vagrancy, or keeping gambling-houses: there do not appear to be in these cases---as in those just considered any definite Rights belonging to assignable individuals which are violated if the obligations are not fulfilled. Still, when we reflect on the interest that the community at large has in the observance of the laws in question, it does not seem strained to say that the community has a right to their observance.

Comparing these cases, I arrive at the conclusion that ``a right'' is really an obligation regarded from a different point of view: i.e. regarded in relation to the person to whom the obligation is intended to be useful. In the case of such rights as the right of property, the rule which binds or obliges the members of the community to abstain from interfering with the owner's use of the appropriated thing has at the same time the effect of securing or protecting the owner's freedom of action in respect of the thing in question: and hence some thinkers have conceived a ``Right'' as being essentially ``secured or protected liberty''. But there are other cases to which this definition clearly would not apply: e.g. when a child is said to have a ``right to education'' there is no liberty secured to the child, but merely an obligation imposed on other persons of rendering it certain positive services.{Note}

Accordingly, in forming a definite conception of any right, it is indispensable to ascertain the obligation implied in it, and the persons on whom this obligation is thrown. For instance, in speaking of rules determining the rights of private members of the community, we may imply either obligations imposed on private persons, or obligations imposed on members of the Government. The distinction thus drawn is important in separating the discussion of the work that Government has to do from the discussion of the methods and instruments by which the work should be done. It will be somewhat further developed in the next chapter.

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