The debate regarding whether equality of opportunity or equality of condition is desirable is a large focus of contemporary political philosophy.  In short, the equality of opportunity position states that, instead of actualized welfare, we ought to equalize opportunity for welfare (or success or whatever your particular valued good is).  Reasons for this position vary widely.  Some don’t think that social benefits are morally deserved unless one has chosen to work for their attainment, for example.   I argue that the fact that one has worked towards the attainment of something does not change their moral status; the ‘work requirement,’ in my conception, has only practical relevance.  Work is a prerequisite if and only if society cannot sustain the fulfillment of positive rights otherwise.  If there are some needs for which we have not found a way to satisfy them, for example the need to be cured of AIDS and cancer, we have a social obligation to work towards their satisfaction in any way we can (if we cannot discover a cure ourselves, we can work towards a charitable foundation, or promote social policy that supports funding, etc).  Thus, if the goods needed to fulfill needs aren’t being produced, society and individuals within it are violating rights.  Furthermore, once these goods are produced, it is a violation of rights to hinge their use-availability on something like money, or abstractly conceived merit.  In short, we have an obligation to figure out how to satisfy needs, produce the goods, social and institutional changes necessary for said satisfaction, and finally, an obligation to distribute these goods according to need only; this obligation is so strong as to be based in justice itself.  The capitalist market is not the proper sphere for needs to be satisfied, and in fact, its very laws exist contrary to social justice.  I suppose the relevance to equality of opportunity is that, in my eyes, equality of opportunity is only an ideal regarding goods that do not satisfy needs.  Requiring that someone do something for the realization of their right (as is supposed in equality of opportunity theories) violates that right by making it practically contingent upon something that it is not morally contingent upon.

This discussion, however, presupposes no distinction between negative and positive rights, or at least no relevant distinction.  As Henry Shue ably points out, however, both ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ rights have positive and negative sets of duties connected to them.  They both entail the duties of (1) refraining from the violation of right x (negative), (2) promoting social structures that protect right x (positive), and (3) remedying any violations of right x (positive).  Shue argues that there are, in fact, no positive or negative rights, simply positive and negative duties.  I wish to take a different, yet connected, line of discussion.  The distinction between positive and negative interpretations of rights hinges on the distinction between acts of omission and acts of commission.  In short, this distinction hinges on the belief that it is more wrong to commit a wrong action than withhold a corresponding right action (for example, it is more wrong to kill than to withhold the means of life).  Various arguments are cited for support, including (1) motivational reasons, and (2) the Kantian distinction between perfect and imperfect duties.  One such argument for a motivational distinction would be that, whereas killing (intentionally) is an act of the will and the intent of the action, letting die is commonly not the intent of the action (for example, when you do not give food to the starving, it is not because you want them to starve and die, but because you want to keep your food [or perhaps some prima facie more valuable reason that I cannot think of]).  This, I think, fails because if one has (1) the knowledge that conditions such as that people are starving to death can or do generally exist, and (2) one has or can attain the ability to alleviate some degree of this condition, then (3) one has as strong an obligation as the obligation not to kill, because (4) it takes a conscious act to ignore knowledge of what must be done, and/or do nothing about it.  If (1) prevails, the rest roughly follow (and I did not intend those arguments to constitute a formal logic derivation).  One has a motivational duty as strong to eliminate suffering as the one not to cause it.

Furthermore, some suppose the Kantian distinction between perfect duties (omissions of actions, whereby omissions are perfectly universalizable with no contradiction) and imperfect duties (where universalizable performance results in a contradiction but where some performance is obligatory).  I believe, however, that this distinction rests on a false formulation by Kant.  Kant attempted to universalize maxims of positive action, which cannot be universally performed, and used that inability to universally perform them to suppose no universal obligation; the obligation to positive actions rests on choice, not universal duty.  However, I think that the next step is not to make positive duties ‘nice but not mandatory,’ but to conceive of positive duties as ‘mandatory when (1) possibly achieved in the moment without too grievous of a sacrifice, and (2) achievable in a manner consistent with a long-term ability to continue to fulfill other duties.’  Kant’s problem gets resolved, and the concept of positive rights is reinforced.  While these considerations do not completely remove the distinction between acts and omissions, they do shine some light on why I feel the distinction has little to no relevance to conceptions of rights.

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