Henry Shue right to subsistence

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HenryShue right to subsistence

Incase subsistence includes unpolluted water and air, clothing,adequate food, dignified shelter as well as a minimal preventive formof health-care, then close to a billion humans globally, the majoritybeing young children, resides or works near the level that may bedescribed as minimal subsistence. Henry Shue fronts the argumentthat there exist basic human rights that include a right to what sherefers to as minimal subsistence(Shue, 36).The philosopher holds the belief that any failures to fully recognizesuch a right rest upon the accepting of a false type of dichotomythat is between positive or negative right. In place of thisparticular dichotomy, Henry came up with a combination of tripleduties that are closely correlative to basic rights.

TheBasic Right to Subsistence

Shueargues in support of this basic right to subsistence to incorporatethe following main rights concept, that of a basic and a moral right.Shue’s primary conception of the moral right is characterized bytwo main features: such a right caters for (1) a rational basis forjustifiable demand (2) that the unhindered exercise of any substanceought to be socially guaranteed against any forms of threats.Although it may not be a requirement that each moral right shouldpossess all these features, each basic one ought to have them(Shue, 45).Social forms of guarantee against threats simply mean that somearrangements ought to be put in place to offer some levels ofprotection, and such notions of any threat are supposed to bespecific about the level.

Inaccordance with Shue, the most distinct feature about these basichuman rights that the regular enjoyment is crucial as well to theexercise of any other forms of rights. Their exercise is an importantcondition for the eventual exercise of all the other forms of moralright. Even though non-basic forms of rights can at times besacrificed for the sake of basic rights, the latter can never at anypoint be sacrificed for the sake of non-basic rights(Shue, 59).Doing so would be self-defeating at best. In case basic rights aredenied, not other forms of rights may be enjoyed. Therefore, Henryasserts that basic rights are every person’s reasonable form ofdemands on the rest of the human society.

Henry’sstrategy in the defense of the basic rights to subsistence rests uponthe assertion that if there exists any negative right to any formphysical individual security, then with the same kind of thought,there also exists a positive right to the same subsistence. A centralassertion of basic rights to physical individual security takes theform that no person may completely exercise any of his right that issupposed to be protected by the wider society in the event thatsomeone may credibly threaten him with rape, murder, as well asbeatings whenever the individual attempts to enjoy these allegedrights(Shue, 67).These threats to security are some of the gravest and most commonhindrances to the regular enjoyment of any other rights. If, at anypoint, any rights have to be enjoyed except at significant risk orphysical form of security ought to be protected.

Thebasic right to security is of utmost importance since its absenceleaves available a highly effective way for third parties that mayinclude the sitting government to infringe upon or prevent anyexercise of any other forms of rights that should have been guardedin the first place. Most arguments in support of the basic right tosubsistence parallel the ones in support of the basic rights tophysical security(Shue, 78).No human being may completely enjoy any right that may be under theprotection of society if such an individual lacks the bare essentialsrequired for living a reasonably active or healthy lifestyle. Anyshortcomings in the means of subsistence may end up being just asincapacitating, fatal or even painful as that of any violations ofone’s physical security. The resultant death or damage may, atleast, act decisively and lead to the prevention of the overallexercise of any forms of right as may the ensuing effects of someviolations of one’s security(Shue, 87).

Asfor the argument in support of physical individual security, a right(basic) is often exercised on the basis that the right is absolutelycrucial to the exercise of any other rights. According to Shue, anyargument in support of these basic rights contains this mainstructure:

  • Every human being possesses a right to something in particular

  • Various other needs or things are just as crucial to this enjoyment of the first thing as a form or a right whatever this may be

  • Therefore, every person also possesses rights to other things that are important to the enjoyment of the first point in the structure

Shueclarifies two important points on the argument structure. First ofall, the argument relies on the basis of what it usually means foranything to be regarded a right or on the right’s concept. Themoral right concept has been characterized in the forms of justifieddemand and that the indulging of any substance is ought to besocially guaranteed (Shue,93).This, therefore, means that the second premise, as well as theconclusion, includes the very notion of fully enjoying the firstpoint or thing as a human right. The addition of such a notion in thegeneral structure of the argument plays a crucial role in thecritique of Shue’s argument.

Mostcritics object Shue’s personal characterization of the moral rightas being part and parcel of the feature of exercise or enjoyment ofany other right. Such a feature is pivotal to the argument by Shue insupport of basic human right since these rights are often definedbased on what is necessary for the express enjoyment other types ofrights. It should be noted that if the exercise of a right is aprimary feature of the base concept of the moral right, then thesebasic rights follow through analytically drawn from such a concept.However, if the exercise is not a central feature of this moral rightconcept, then by definition basic rights are non-existent. It wouldalso appear that enjoyment may not be a principal feature of themoral concept. There exists a well-accepted distinction betweenpossessing a right and enjoying it(Shue, 102).It appears patent that a person may possess a right that he is unableto exercise.


Shueobjects the notion that if a person is entitled to the enjoyment of aright, then such an enjoyment consists only in non-interference bythird parties. This rejection is based on Shue’s contention thatindividuals are entitled to the protection of these rights, and sucha protection contributes to an inevitable rejection of any dichotomybetween positive or negative rights. However, his argument againstdichotomy takes the assumption that social guarantees are part andparcel of the basic concept of moral rights. The use of taxation toprovide some assistance to those who are unable is justified becauseit ensures the whole society’s right to subsistence is upheld andnot sections of the society are marginalized. According to HenryShue, the same grounds that support the most basic of rights toself-proclamation and liberty apply on an equal level to a minimumlevel of clothing, shelter as well as food. Using taxation to supportthose who cannot afford these through programs such as homelessshelters, or soup shops show that the society respects and upholdsthe ideals of the right to subsistence. Since, the beginning of the20thC, the U.S. has done this through social welfare programs. A rightoffers the rational basis for a justified kind of demand. On theissue of taxation to support the marginalized, if an individualpossesses a particular right, any demand that the substance’senjoyment of the right be socially guaranteed is justifiable byreasons that are good meaning that these guarantees should beprovided. According to Shue, to possess a right means to be in aposition to make particular demands of others. To be in such aposition is among other things for a person’s situation to fallunder certain principals that are good reasons as to why themarginalized people’s demands should be granted.


Shue,Henry.&nbspBasicRights: Subsistence, Affluence and U.S. Foreign Policy.Princeton, N.J:

PrincetonUniv. Pr, 1980. Print.

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