Is the concept of (human) rights a modern conceit, as Alasdair MacIntyre thinks? To answer that question, it helps to look at the premodern roots of the concept of rights in some detail. The French legal historian Michel Villey has probably done more than any other to help us understand the historicity of the concept of rights – to recognize that the idea of a right as we understand it today is not a human universal, but has a specific history. (Unfortunately, few if any of Villey’s works have been translated into English; even the Wikipedia link above is French only.) Something like Villey’s work probably underlies MacIntyre’s understanding of the history of rights. Still, if we examine the similarly pioneering work of Cornell historian Brian Tierney, we will see that Villey’s claims are at least somewhat overstated, and MacIntyre’s even more so.
The etymology of the English word “right(s)” goes back very far – it is shared not only with German and Dutch Recht but with the word ṛta from the Sanskrit Vedas, denoting the cosmic order underlying the world. But what’s most important in the history of “rights” and related words is not the words themselves but the underlying concept, the one that comes to be expressed in modern European languages as droit, derecho, Recht, rights. That concept begins as a word which is not etymologically related to the modern European words, but which those words all translate and which is the root of modern European thinking about them: Continue reading