How fruitful is the employment of rights language in modern public discourse?

It depends on who’s doing the talking.

The same sex marriage debate is a convenient case study of what’s presently wrong with rights language. Parties on both sides of an issue, both clamoring for their rights, both claiming that if the other side’s rights are observed their own are violated. It’s a zero sum game. The same is true of the abortion debate. Rights are being bandied like weapons, or neon signs declaring private property: “Halt, come no further: These are my rights you’re treading on here!”

How is it that two groups of advocates committed to defending human rights occupy such polar opposites on fundamental moral questions of human dignity? What’s wrong with our present rights discourse?

I’m not questioning the existence or validity of human rights, nor the larger framework of natural law in which the concept of natural rights is properly intelligible. But insofar as rights are the cornerstone of much American social policy – think, the Bill of Rights – I question the efficacy of rights language when it is employed in a cultural environment so far removed from that framework of natural law in which it makes sense.

I’m Catholic and I study philosophy and theology. Rights language makes good sense to me. I’ve written here at Ethika Politika about human rights and their nested surrounding in natural law, conscience and moral objectivism.


But most Americans aren’t familiar with such a robust framework, and I fear that outside it, the rights discourse in today’s political culture is consigned to a slow, if certain, slide towards incommensurability. Aaron Taylor’s recent piece touches on this with respect to the right to religious freedom.

In a nation for which “right” is synonymous with “entitlement” and a dichotomy exists between “entitlement” and “blessing/gift/privilege,” things are bound to get hairy, especially when the rights of parents and children are the topic of discussion. How can we say that life is a right when it is also clearly a gift? How can we say that children have a right to their father and mother when being raised by both parents is so clearly a blessing and privilege? These are the understandable questions provoked by common recourse to rights talk.

Alasdair MacIntyre’s example of taboos from his magisterial After Virtue comes to mind. Have we moved beyond the philosophical and cultural matrix in which rights can be intelligibly discussed and even argued about? Have we too far departed from the intellectual underpinnings that prop up rights? Does it make much sense anymore to speak of the child’s right "to be the fruit of the specific act of the conjugal love of his parents," as the Catechism of the Catholic Church does?

I never liked math growing up, and I’m glad that I’ll never have to study it again. But the most valuable thing I learned from studying math was this: Those “shortcuts” that happen to work for some simpler problems eventually break down when you get to the hard stuff.  More than once, teachers replied to my insistence that mine was the better way to solve a problem with, “that’ll work now, but if you try that in chapter 12, you’ll be in all kinds of trouble.” Two different formulas can yield the same results for a few data plots, but eventually they’ll diverge, and it’s then that you realize the ugly truth and with a sigh pick up your eraser.

Rights discourse in America is much the same way today. The Church condemns and the state proscribes certain actions that violate human rights – such as forced sterilization, human trafficking and torture (sort of) – and with these common causes in mind it seems like we’re united in a vision of the human good.

Only when the other shoe drops and the state promotes a right to abortion or a right to contraceptives or a right to artificially produce a child do we realize that someone’s using the wrong formula. In these cases, when the Church champions certain human rights, the corresponding duties of which inconvenience the American way of living, She is accused of “imposing.” There’s less harmony between the secular and Catholic view of rights than first appears, though there are some commendable similarities between the two.

Perhaps what we need is a more perspicuous approach to rights that clearly articulates and defends the duties that correspond to those rights, and whence those rights and duties derive in human nature, not simply the “American situation.” We need to intentionally rehabilitate the framework within which rights are properly situated: natural law and a sound anthropology that acknowledges man’s ensoulment and creatureliness.

Until then, both sides will continue to talk right past one another, using the same words and communicating not at all.