Given the recent topics of conversations, the subject of rights and obligations has come up a bit on Feministe. I think that there are a lot of places people come from on the subject of rights and obligations, so I thought I'd do a little polling and see where people fall.
Generally speaking, when I, and I think most other people, talk about morality, what we're really talking about are rights and obligations against and towards other people. Moral theory is a pretty complex and highly debated field, and I'm not even going to try to sum up or explain all of the different sources of and theories of morality. Suffice to say that there's a lot of debate.
In our society, there's very little relation between "Legal" and "Moral." The two sometimes overlap, as in the case of, say, murder- but the fact that something is against the law doesn't make it immoral. It's against the law to jay-walk, but I'm not sure that I've ever seen someone try to argue that it's immoral. Likewise, the fact that something is legal doesn't necessarily mean that it's moral. It's legal to lie to and cheat on your girlfriend/boyfriend, but most moral theories would suggest it's probably not very moral to do so.
With regards to rights and obligations: When you are said to have a right, X, it implies an obligation in other moral beings. If I have a right not to be killed unjustly, then it follows that there's an obligation in other moral beings not to kill me unjustly. If someone else is said to have a right to personal autonomy, then I have an obligation not to unjustly encroach on that person's personal autonomy. Rights and obligations are sort of constantly pushing against each other. For each right you have, there are coralary obligations that other people have to respect.
I think that a point that many people get hung up on is the use of the word "person" within moral theory. In everyday language most people use "human" and "person" pretty interchangably. When someone says "I saw a group of people standing over by such-and-such" we parse that as meaning a group of human beings. That's not necessarily the case in moral theory.
When we talk about "persons" in moral theory, what we're talking about are moral agents. Some moral theorists believe that only human beings can be persons, but quite a few leave open the possibility for non-human persons. Think, for example, of Star Wars (I know, geeky, right?). Any of the sapient beings in the Star Wars universe could be considered persons if they're capable of being called moral beings. If they have the capacity to understand moral obligations, they'd be people. This even includes things like artificial intelligences- computers that are self-aware.
For more practical and (for now!) realistic examples, consider the possibility that some animals turn out to be smarter than we'd previously thought. If some apes or dolphin turn out to have human-like intelligence, and can understand rights and obligations, shouldn't they be included in the moral community?
Moving more towards my personal beliefs (although, by no means only mine), is the possibility that some things may have rights, but not obligations. I don't really want to weigh in too heavily in the animal rights debate right now, because, quite frankly, I don't have a horse in that race, and I haven't thought enough about animal rights to take a strong, educated stance, but even within the world of human beings we recognize that there are some humans that have rights without attached obligations.
To put it broadly: Human beings that aren't capable of understanding or acting on moral obligations are generally held not to have them. This is, I think, the main reason why we usually hold young children to lower standards of behavior than adults. If a child engages in theft, lying, or even some forms of violence, we generally don't hold them accountable in the same way that we'd hold a teenager or an adult.
When a six year-old hits another child, or steals a toy or candy, we recognize that part of this is likely because the child doesn't yet have a developed sense of moral obligation and behavior. You can tell a young child that stealing is wrong, or that hitting is bad, but it takes some time for the child to develop a sense of obligation towards other people. Children develop a sense of understanding beyond the self over time, they're not necessarily born with this.
This is also one of the reasons why people who are deemed insane are held to a different standard than those who are not. If you are unable to control your own behavior, or experience the world in such a way that moral behavior is completely impossible, then you can't be said to have the same obligations as a person who can make moral choices. Which is not to say that such actions go unpunished or no steps should or are taken to prevent future repeat offenses- but the standard is different, and we generally think that such people "need help" not just prison (as an example).
Anyway, that's sort of a brief run-down of where I'm coming from on discussions about morality and moral behaviors. Like I said, there's a lot of debate in the field, and my thoughts shouldn't be taken as an explanation for what every moral theorist has to say- some would agree, others wouldn't. I thought it might help understand where I'm coming from in some conversations, though.