Introducing ethics in Information and Computer Sciences
Introducing ethics in Information and Computer Sciences

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Introducing ethics in Information and Computer Sciences

5.8 Rights

At the beginning of Act 2, Ned is quite explicit about not wanting to bargain over money. It is very clear he is bargaining over his right to control who uses what he sees as his technology, and his rights, he believes, will enable him to keep his weapon out of the hands of administrations that he does not really trust. So, at the centre of all this are the rights that appear to provide the means for Ned to control the distribution of devices embodying his idea, and that will allow him to prevent the distribution of his device to nations he believes will use them to cause harm. In other words, he wants to enter the wider world of politics using the rights to his ideas as an instrument. Incidentally, of course, he also feels that, with the idea being his, if it were materialised and he wanted it to be materialised, is very much a part of his identity.

Activity 23

Read Act 2 of Landscape with Weapon and jot down some answers to the following question: what do we mean by ‘rights’?



If you have ‘rights’, then you're allowed to do something or to stop something happening. It might be human rights, which allows you to do certain kinds of things, or to stop somebody preventing you from doing things. So ‘rights’ imply authority.

Another thing about ‘rights’ is that they accrue to somebody; in the play, Ned, it's Ned's rights we are talking about. They could also accrue to a group. By having ‘rights’ the individual or group benefit, or perhaps prevent harm. It is possible that people might want ‘rights’ to bring benefit when they are attributed to somebody or a group. However, rights may not be beneficial to anyone else, so it is a privilege to have them.

How do ‘rights’ get allocated? How do you get them, if they are a good thing? If you are allocated rights you are given privileges, that is, the allocation of rights is generally performative, that is, it involves a social act that is the result of an event coupled to some social convention. The idea of performative utterances was introduced by the British philosopher John Austin and can be understood as the use of words to bring about change. Someone says you can earn rights but, actually, earning rights is related to an event that is coupled to a social convention because, if somebody has the rights, other people have to respect them. This is often reinforced by some kind of ceremony. For example, certificates get issued when people have ‘rights’, or a patent gets issued when people are allocated ‘rights’.

In other words, ‘rights’ are a social convention but there is really no compulsion. People who do not respect the convention will disregard the rights. They will show no respect for the assigned authority, and they will not consider helping the accrual of the benefit to the rights holder. In the play, Ned has ‘rights’, that is, ‘rights’ are attributed to him as a result of his having an idea; his ‘rights’ are respected by others or perhaps not in the play. Perhaps as things unfold people do not quite respect the ‘rights’ in the way you would expect.

As I said earlier, ‘rights’ are allocated performatively. An example Austin (1986, p. 5) uses to explain a performative is the marriage ceremony. When people get married, they are asked if they want to get married to the other person, and by saying ‘I do’ they bring about the change in their social status from single to married. In the case of ideas being converted into patents, then there may be some words written that bring about the allocation of rights. Austin says that, for a performative to be effective, it must be part of an accepted procedure, we must all know what is going on. All participants must adopt appropriate roles, and the procedure must be executed correctly, completely and with sincerity. There are, therefore, conditions surrounding a performative. Effectively, what people say performatively, or what they write down, effects a change in relationships. Ned gains his privileges when he acquires, presumably, a patent or some other recognition of his idea.

Performatives are fairly common utterances. Bureaucracies, for example, have rather austere linguistic ceremonies. For example, you fill in forms, which is a rather primitive kind of ceremony. You may also sign an agreement or you may be interviewed. Also, there are committee meetings where somebody says something that transforms the status of individuals. These examples are all rather formal but, of course, there are less benign performatives available, for example, you can start spreading rumours about certain individuals being liars or cheats, and if that's taken up, then that is also performative because it changes the social status of those individuals. The crucial thing is that performatives are grounded in language, so they do not involve any physical action and, certainly, they do not involve violence. They are, however, collective, because they imply social agreement.

In the play, what Ros is trying to do is to get Ned to transfer his rights to the company, and she must persuade him to go through a sort of ritual. He has to sign an agreement that declares he will give up his benefit, his privileges and hand over benefits to the company. You can see that, because there are privileges associated with it, he might want something in return. That is why Ros offers money. But, of course, that fails, so she tries a different tack. She actually talks about the importance of the work to the local community, and that is rather similar to the situation we saw in the play Last Call, where the benefit to the community is put forward as why you might do something that may be on the margins of acceptability.


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