RIGHT AND WRONG by Charles Fried


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When it comes to questions of moral and legal theory, Harvard is a house divided against itself. First John Rawls (Philosophy) argued, in J Theory of Justice, for an equitable distribution of goods in society. Robert Nozick (Philosophy) counterattacked with his Anarchy, State, and Utopia, proclaiming the right of each individual to be left alone to accumulate wealth. These opposed positions have drawn abuse from right and left, respectively. Now Charles Fried (Harvard Law) occupies the only spot that is still open--the middle. He rejects the idea, contra Rawls, that the establishment of a supreme good justifies those acts that contribute to its realization. Instead we must begin with the ""deontological"" assertion that there are some things that are wrong and should not be done under (almost) any circumstances--most particularly, the intentional harm of a person, and lying. From this negative formulation, Fried goes on to derive a theory of rights, on the proposition that rights describe the same phenomena as fall under the category of wrongs, only from the other side: i.e., it is wrong to harm a person, consequently a person has a right not to be intentionally harmed. Where Fried goes against Nozick, and back toward Rawls, is in his argument that there are positive rights--rights ""to"" something, in this case a fair share of the scarce goods in a community (a Rawlsian notion)--and that it is wrong to impede the positive rights of others. But Fried also recognizes basic negative rights which arc inviolable (back toward Nozick): i.e., rights ""from"" something, such as harm. The point of all this movement is to specify a general set of socio-legal norms which will allow for a reasonable level of social welfare--necessary to protect the integrity of the person--and at the same time provide a relatively wide space within which the individual can live free of constant moral pressure (hence his emphasis on intentionality with regard to actions). But the argument winds up looking like the collation of two legal briefs--one for each side of the argument--so that the title becomes a pun (""yes, that's right. . . and wrong""). A moving target may be harder to hit, but that is not necessarily a virtue.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1978
Publisher: Harvard Univ. Press