• Open Access

Giving Up the Goods: Rethinking the Human Right to Subsistence, Institutional Justice, and Imperfect Duties



Either a person's claim to subsistence goods is held against institutions equipped to distribute social benefits and burdens fairly or it is made regardless of such a social scheme. If the former, then one's claim is not best understood as based on principles setting out a subsistence goods entitlement, but rather on principles of equitable social distribution — a fair share. If, however, the claim is not against a given social scheme, no plausible principle exists defining what counts as a reasonable burden for any of the available agents to secure subsistence. No justifiable principle exists implying generalised perfect duties any agent could clearly follow or clearly breach that secure subsistence conditions for others. At best we can justify rescue duties under very specific conditions, or general but imperfect duties to improve arrangements. Neither of these obviously correlates with human rights standards. Attempts in the literature to overcome the dilemma by claiming basic rights can correlate with imperfect duties or can generate duties to work towards institutions that ‘perfect’ our imperfect duties, are faulty. I then show how the dilemma can be avoided by accounts of human rights focusing on minimum respectful treatment rather than goods or interests.