Philippa Foot: Negative And Positive Rights

Table of Content

Philippa Foot, Emerita Professor of Philosophy at the University of California at Los Angeles, has been studying and writing about the moral implications of killing someone versus letting someone die for many years. She also explains to us the difference between the negative and positive rights of a person and how negative rights and duties are more stringent than positive rights and duties. I shall be looking at this theory and explaining how it applies to certain cases.

Before we can discuss these rights and how they apply to these situations, though, we must know what they truly mean.Foot says that rights can be split into two kinds, negative and positive. Negative rights are described as our rights not to be interfered with or not to be harmed. For instance, we have the right not to have our property taken away.

This essay could be plagiarized. Get your custom essay
“Dirty Pretty Things” Acts of Desperation: The State of Being Desperate
128 writers

ready to help you now

Get original paper

Without paying upfront

Positive rights are our rights to goods and services, such as our right to food and medical care. Corresponding to a person’s negative and positive rights are other people’s negative and positive duties; we have a negative duty not to harm other people and a positive duty to feed the hungry.Foot also says that we should reject the theory of Consequentialism which is a very simplistic view of what is right and wrong. In fact, that is why many people support it, because of its simplicity.

Consequentialism states that all that matters to the rightness or wrongness of actions is the goodness or badness of the consequences. In simpler terms, an action is permissible or Nsgood if the consequences are better than any alternative available to the person committing the act.Foot, though, says that this theory is wrong because the way that these consequences are brought about is actually what can matter morally and decide whether the act is truly right or wrong. Furthermore, we need to know how Foots theory of killing and letting die applies to certain situations and what she would conclude about them.

The first situation, where the Judge has to choose whether or not to frame an innocent person to save five others who are being held hostage, is relatively simple to explain using Foots theory.It seems that if the judge framed an innocent person to take the blame for the crime that the mob wants justice for, he or she would be ignoring that persons negative right to not be harmed and, in the same instance, would be ignoring their own negative duty not to harm other people. If nothing is done, the mob will kill the five people because the culprit of the crime was not found. This would be an example of the judge letting someone (or five people in this instance) die instead of actually killing someone.

If the judge proceeded to frame the innocent person for the crime, that would be a prime example of killing someone and taking the action yourself. Arguments have been made that it is moral to save as many people as possible, but it is the way that that certain outcome would be accomplished that makes it immoral. Foot describes in her essay that We cannot originate a fatal sequence, although we can allow one to run its course (Foot 78five).This explains why the judge cannot originate the fatal sequence of having an innocent person hanged.

In the second situation, the previous case is changed so that a person now has the option to save five from the mob or save one from the judge, who has decided to frame an innocent person to try and save the five hostages. This situation is different from before because now it seems that, if nothing is done, all six people will die, but you have the option to save at least some of them.In the previous occurrence, the person in question was actually initiating a fatal sequence to kill someone who would, otherwise, not have died. In this incidence, if nothing is done, then all of the people will die but any action taken by the person would not create any additional fatal sequence that was not going to happen before.

Although, if nothing is done, this person, who has the chance to take action and save lives, will be ignoring his or her positive duty to save them if it is possible.Assuming that all of the people are of equal importance to society, the obvious choice would be to save the five hostages. Even though the other person has done nothing wrong and deserves to live just as the other five do, it is common sense to save the most that you can; as long as you wont endanger anyone else or initiate some sort of lethal action that would not have otherwise happened. In this situation, the choice is just to save five out of the six or save one out of the six, so five is the obvious choice, and Foot would agree.

The final situation is a little bit more complicated because it is much like the previous case where you can save five or save one, except this has a certain twist to it. In this case, someone has a choice to do absolutely nothing and watch an out of control trolley speed down a hill and kill five people tied to the track. The other choice would be for the person to flip a switch to save the five, but they would be killing one other person that is tied to the other side of the track. This bystander situation is much like the first case where the Judge was going to frame an innocent person to save the five.

In this case, all six people have the negative right to live and not be harmed. We can assume that they have done nothing wrong and that they are tied to the tracks for no apparent reason. For this reason, it goes back to the duties discussed earlier. Everyone has a negative duty not to harm other people.

The bystander in this case would not be ignoring his negative duty not to harm other people if he does nothing because it seems that the five people would have died had he or she not seen the incident.Although, there is an apparent problem for Foot: If the bystander flips the switch to save the five but kill the one person, who otherwise would not have been harmed, that person is actually initiating a fatal sequence that would not have occurred originally. They would be ignoring their negative duty not to harm others by directly harming the one person on the other side of the track. Even though we chose to save the five people instead of one in the case before, that was because they were all going to die if nothing was done; therefore the best option was chosen.

In this case, it seems that the bystander must choose to do nothing so that they do not actually kill someone that would not have died if they hadnt interfered. For example, the negative right not to be killed would override the positive right to give aid. Foot answers this problem in an interesting way. She says that this is actually a special case.

In this case, if a bystander were to flip the switch to divert the trolley to the track with one person, they would not be originating any sort of fatal sequence, just diverting one that was about to occur so that it killed less people.It actually would be the right decision because the person switching the trolley to the other track is just keeping the most people alive as possible. She explains it in a different way by saying that if there is a fire, you should not create a flood to put out the fire, even when the fire would kill more people than the flood, but someone would be able to divert a flood to a different area so that it kills less people. This is how Foot answers the interesting case of the bystander watching the trolley.

So it seems that what Foot is trying to portray to us is that we should respect the negative and positive rights of all people and we should uphold our negative and positive duties at the same time. In any instance where a decision must be made, one should respect the rights of the most people as possible while not ignoring any of our aforementioned duties. All of this comes back to the fact that it is the way that decisions are made that makes them moral or not, as well as the way we respect and uphold our moral rights and duties to others.

Cite this page

Philippa Foot: Negative And Positive Rights. (2018, Feb 22). Retrieved from

Remember! This essay was written by a student

You can get a custom paper by one of our expert writers

Order custom paper Without paying upfront