In this SEP entry, the author states that African Ethics are ethics ...

... of Duty, Not of Rights
A morality of duty is one that requires each individual to demonstrate concern for the interests of others. The ethical values of compassion, solidarity, reciprocity, cooperation, interdependence, and social well-being, which are counted among the principles of the communitarian morality, primarily impose duties on the individual with respect to the community and its members. All these considerations elevate the notion of duties to a status similar to that given to the notion of rights in Western ethics. African ethics does not give short-shrift to rights as such; nevertheless, it does not give obsessional or blinkered emphasis on rights. In this morality duties trump rights, not the other way around, as it is in the moral systems of Western societies. The attitude to, or performance of, duties is induced by a consciousness of needs rather than of rights. In other words, people fulfill—and ought to fulfill—duties to others not because of the rights of these others, but because of their needs and welfare

At first glance it appears that, if the same 'needs and welfare' are enshrined duties, I can expect everyone around my take care of them (providing me food when I would otherwise go hungry) while in a rights based framework I can only expect this of certain institutions (maybe a welfare state).

However, I'm not sure if this is a difference between liberalism where rights are far more often rights to be left alone in doing certain acts (free speech as absence of censorship by the sate) than rights to something (right to voice my opinion on a certain platform).

So my confusion how exaclty duty based ethics systems differ from rights based in everyday application.

3 Answers 3


Since the author doesn't explain what they mean by a rights-based ethics, it's a little hard to tell. But rights are often understood as only "negative rights," what you call "rights to be left alone in doing certain acts." Ever since Isaiah Berlin's "Two Concepts of Liberty," academic political philosophers frequently associate "positive rights" with "positive liberty," and are at least hesitant to see entitlements (say, to a minimum income or health care) in terms of rights. For example, in John Rawls' A Theory of Justice, redistribution is justified by the difference principle rather than notions of liberty or rights. Some libertarian philosophers argue explicitly that rights must only be understood as negative rights.

By contrast, public discourse about rights often includes both positive and negative rights. For example, right now proponents of universal public health care in the US often frame their argument in terms of a right to health care.

Since the author is an academic philosopher, it's probably safe to assume that they're assuming that rights are only negative rights. "Positive rights" would be understood as duties; so members of my community have a duty to provide me with enough food for me to survive, but this isn't a (negative) right to food.

  • I'm not sure your last paragraph is correct. But the difference between positive and negative rights helpüed me to clarify my thinking.
    – mart
    Jul 3, 2018 at 8:03

A duty is a requirement that someone does something. A right is a requirement that someone receives something.

The difference in application is that a duty specifies the donor but not the recipient, whereas a right specifies the recipient but not the donor.

  • That is a bizarre definition of "right" that I am not familiar with. I am more familiar with a right being something that a person already has which can only be taken away. Who 'gives' me the right to speak? No one. It can only be taken away.
    – otakucode
    Apr 8, 2018 at 4:13

Let me jot down my own thinking on the matter:

  • Positive rights can easily be "re-encoded" in duty ethics (I have a right to eat - I have a duty to give surplus food to my neighbor in need)
  • Positive rights work well in a state or as guiding principles of institutions (At least in theory). In the absence of a state or similar, a duty framework provides a closer guidance as to whom is responsible for ensuring a "right": I have a duty to give surplus food to my neighbor in need. But when my neighbor has a right to food, does it follow they have a right to my (surplus) food?
  • Negative rights are harder to encode as duties: I have a right to privacy - I have a duty not to enter before knocking, duty not to read strangers mail, duty not to ...
  • So a rights-based framework can be more flexible in as how the specific rights are guarded
  • For this reason s rights based framework works "better" as a foundation than a duty based framework

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .