Few concepts are more ubiquitous in our political vocabulary today than rights – human rights, civil rights, equal rights. It is a widespread concept even in non-Western thought about politics, let alone Western. We could try to reject the concept, but that would require great effort, intellectual as well as political – for it would necessarily be reactionary, an innovation through conservatism. A literal conservatism would have to accept the idea of rights, given how intricately woven it is into the fabric of our political discourse. We cannot do without it lightly.
Yet few concepts are also so difficult to defend. Rights-based arguments often get nowhere, because the rights asserted are typically in obvious diametrical contrast: the fetus has a right to life, the pregnant woman has a right to control her body, now what? Rights are typically supposed to be something different from utility; they are not the sort of thing one can trade off and weigh. (That is the role they play in the thought of John Rawls, for example, where protecting individual rights takes “lexicographic” priority – that is, always comes first – over maximizing the welfare of the worst off.) So when competing rights are asserted, too often it leads not to reasoning but to combat. Sometimes the combat is judicial, as over the rights declared in the American Constitution; but those only happen to be the rights articulated by one country’s laws at one point in time. The force of the concepts of civil rights or human rights can only derive from them being something higher, truer, than what happens to be one existing state’s law. Continue reading