New York University Public Law and Legal Theory Working Papers

Document Type



Taking as its point of departure, a Green Paper published by the UK government in 2008 urging greater emphasis on responsibilities, this essay considers various senses of "responsibility" that may be thought important in and around the topic of individual rights. Most likely, the authors of the Green Paper had in mind responsibilities that are correlative to rights and responsibilities that qualify rights or limit their exercise. But an additional idea - which has not been properly considered - is the idea of rights which ARE (in large part) responsibilities, rights which embody responsibilities. An obvious example is the right of a parent to bring up his or her child; it is certainly a right, but it makes reference to an important task that has to be fulfilled in society (the upbringing and nurture of this child) and it assigns that task as a responsibility to the parents and protects them in that assignment (while also supervising them in their performance of it). Once you start thinking in these terms, many rights or claims of right have this structure: think, for example, of the right of gay people to serve in the military; or, from an earlier period, the right of women to serve on juries. In exploring this conception of "responsibility-rights," I relate it to the topic of dignity, inasmuch as the human dignity principle retains some aspects of dignity's earlier association with rank and role. I consider the possibility that human dignity generally can be understood as a source of responsibilities as well as rights, or - along the lines of my conception - as a source of protected normative positions which comprise elements of both. I don't suggest that all rights have this form, but I believe it is a highly illuminating conception nonetheless.

Date of Authorship for this Version