What’s Wrong with the World

The men signed of the cross of Christ go gaily in the dark.


What’s Wrong with the World is dedicated to the defense of what remains of Christendom, the civilization made by the men of the Cross of Christ. Athwart two hostile Powers we stand: the Jihad and Liberalism...read more

The Wrong Stuff

"Rights" are all well and good, but I expect that the natural and positive law could be expressed without ever using the term, and we might well be better off avoiding the term as much as possible. At the very least I expect that whenever we use the term "right" to express something true about the moral order or desirable about the legal order, that that expression supervenes on saying the same thing in terms of obligations. A "right" as far as I can tell is just a rule whereby we discriminate between one set of claims and another, and decide what moral (or legal) obligations obtain to the parties involved.

I'll set aside what that imples about the term "equal rights", which on its face would seem to be a self-contradictory requirement to discriminate without discriminating. Suffice to say that although it isn't necessary for the use of the term to result in the banishment of substantive meaning from our politics, in practice it most often does have the effect of banishing meaning from our politics. If everyone always has to be treated equally then distinctions have to be made not to matter: meaning must be banished. Yet the assertion of any "right" is an assertion that some distinction matters: that one claim or set of claims must trump a conflicting claim or set of claims: that the meaning of the specific conflict must be resolved.

But apropos to my observation below that private acts are closeted acts if in fact private, we have to ask if a "right" of privacy makes any sense at all, even if we don't worry about the right obtaining equally to axe murderers and poetry writers. Surely there are very many affairs in which the government has no business meddling. Surely also there are circumstances where a person in fact does something illegal, but it would be unwise and possibly even unjust to grant the government power to go about ruthlessly digging into it with no proportionate limit. Some violations ought not rise to a level greater than a traffic ticket, and some tickets ought not be issued at all unless the driver is caught in some more serious act. This seems especially true for things like sodomy and personal drug use to the extent - and only to the extent - that such acts tend to be self-punishing and are minimzed in terms of public consequences, which includes their perpetrators having the residual sense to keep them in the closet.

But does the fact that it would be unjust for the government to hunt down and imprison a man who deserves a parking ticket mean that there is a "right" to double-park? The problem isn't that we can't talk about these things rationally, it is just that it makes more sense to talk about them in terms of obligations. Government officials have an obligation not to go overboard in enforcing public standards and the moral law; citizens have an obligation not create a situation where their personal vices become a public nuisance.

The bottom line is that while rights-talk can - if we work hard at it - supervene over some areas where government power ought to be limited and where one man's claim should be found superior to another's, it is in practice a very poor tool for the job.

Comments (13)

Well said, Zippy. Would you say men who insist on private vices (let us say, excessive drinking) do have an obligation -- in addition to the obligation, which they have already violated, of not drinking in excess -- not to carry their vice still further by asserting it at "right," or, what is not much different, by asserting their immunity from legal prosecution for such minor infractions?

In other words, would you say that one of the depredations occasioned by Liberal rights-talk is the effacement of this latter restraint, which in turn oppressed us all with public assertion as "rights" of the various vices of various men?

Would you say men who insist on private vices (let us say, excessive drinking) do have an obligation ... not to carry their vice still further by asserting it at "right," ...

If I were feeling snarky I might even say that asserting a false right to a moral vice violates the rights of others, both in terms of direct insult as well as through the degradation of legitimate rights. But I like the way you said it better.

A right (as far as I can tell) is an entitlement to have (certain) other people behave in a certain way. It is better - clearer and less subject to distortion - to just say who has obligations and what those obligations happen to be.

Rights talk is a blunt instrument. I wonder how politics would be done if we as a society were to eschew it for a more subtle political language.

Rights-talk is a crude instrument, even a primitive one. But just imagine how preposterous some contemporary rights-claims would sound if translated into the language of obligations: the government is obligated to secure, through the instrumentality of appropriate legislation, the "private" spaces within which acts of sodomy occur, and the public are obligated to look upon all of this with equanimity, even approbation? It sounds neither very private nor very serious when phrased in terms of obligations.

I tend to think of rights almost entirely negatively. So "A has a right to life" means that B (and C, etc....) must not kill A. I suppose thinking of rights negatively makes it a little easier to re-state the right to do some act, even one that is not good. "I have a right to say something unkind to my neighbor about my neighbor's dog" means, "Even if it is wrong for me to insult my neighbor's dog, other people must not punish me in any active way [taking my money in the form of a fine, locking me up for a night, whatever] for doing so."

Still, I feel that this elevates something that is admittedly wrong (being rude to my neighbor, for example) in a silly way. It would be better just to say the latter and leave "rights" out of it. And the same for getting drunk and some other more serious things where we might want to say that they should be permitted.

But I would still like to be able to use rights talk for important negative rights, like "the right not to be tortured," "the right not to be raped," "the right not to be dehydrated to death" and so forth.

Any philosophical parlance that can be reduced to gibberish by so simple a translation, has been found wanting in a fundamental way.

Of course, Edmund Burke was aware of this the moment this parlance appeared as an "armed doctrine." Woe to you who will not heed the prophet.

For making neat distinctions, the term right is blunt.

For our contemporary, this bluntness is its greatest force: by fogging substantive meaning, it builds confidence through an unquestioned, concerted allegiance to the reigning moral imperative. Even a false body politic must have one. The language of rights now has the momentum for winning adherents by steering clear of foundational or irrevocable distinctions. To be sure, rights advocates do make distinctions--a lot of them, both learned and subtle. But the power of these distinctions lies in adhering to its own principle of obscurity: fogging substantive meaning.

Zippy, it seems to me that substituting obligations-talk for rights-talk plays along with the charm of bluntness, although I am hoping that isn't what you mean by saying "the term 'right' supervenes on saying the same thing in terms of obligations."

We cannot hope to break the charm of rights language without recognizing the conditions it wants, and why they arose. Michael Oakeshott describes the anti-individualist origins of rights in representative democracies, rights that sought to relieve the burden of having to make choices for oneself--not to pursue happiness, but to enjoy happiness. This came in the form of security, the kind which demanded "equality of circumstances imposed upon all." Oakeshott goes on to say by itself, the anti-individual was powerless. It's only solace was in numbers. Those who could not make the grade of the individual became an 'individual manque'. "

From the frustrated 'individual manque' there sprang a militant 'anti-indiviudal . . . [and in the recongition] of his numerical superiority the 'anti-individual' at once recognized himself as the 'mass man'and discovered the way of escape[:] mass man sought protection through association rather than leadership.

What emerges now is a language of rights designed not that "government power ought to be limited and where one man's claim should be found superior to another's," as you wrote, but exactly the opposite. Government power is enlarged to establish a morality that comports with an equality of conditions.

But that is but one historical root of this term.

...although I am hoping that isn't what you mean by saying "the term 'right' supervenes on saying the same thing in terms of obligations."

Well, all I am saying in that particular point is that anything which can be said using the term "right" or "rights" is semantically superfluous: the exact same thing can be said using only the term "obligation". Once we've kicked the term "rights" entirely out of our discourse we will be capable of saying anything (right or wrong) which we could have said before; we will just be a bit less likely to be deceiving ourselves about what we are saying.

I'd be willing to go along with Lydia in allowing the occasional use of the term "rights", as long as wherever it is used there is an automatic and strong suspician that (1) the person using it is talking nonsense, and/or (2) the persons hearing it are hearing nonsense (which is independent of (1)). That isn't necessarily so, but one or the other is usually the case (especially as the number of listeners grows to more than a few).

That the term "obligation" itself covers only a small (and rather blunt) space of social reality is an additional and certainly fair and important point. I'm not saying that our discourse should comprehensively be brought under a concept of obligation; I am merely saying that whatever in our discourse is presently covered by the term "rights" can be covered by the term "obligation" without any reference to "rights", that the converse is not the case, and that ours would be a more honest discourse in general if our practice was to eschew the term "rights" entirely.

I've avoided going too much into equal rights because things get even more semantically squirrely. Anyone who uses the term unreflectively is almost certainly indulging in a self-contradiction, from which he can conclude pretty much anything he wants. But that problem also is avoided entirely if our concern is with framing obligations as obligations rather than as "rights", which are merely another view of or label for certain kinds of obligations.

It is of course entirely possible that I missed the point, and if so my apologies; but there you have it.

Rights language can be made more useful if looked on as describing things and extents in which an individual may not be restrained by the State or his fellows, than in compelling their cooperation or active submission.

Which is to, negative rights versus positive rights.

...negative rights versus positive rights.

I am not at this point convinced that there is as clear a distinction as many seem to assume there to be. A right to pornography (for example) is supposed to be a negative right, but it imposes all kinds of (unwanted and unchosen) obligations and conditions on others. It is in part because I think the concept of negative rights is more illusory than proponents of the distinction believe it to be that I think obligation-talk is more honest than (superfluous) rights-talk. If even the proponents of certain negative rights were simply up front about the specific unchosen obligations they are legally imposing on others, all the cards would be on the table. Rights-talk obscures the fact that these obligations are being imposed.

"You are obliged not to imprison a pornography user simply as such" is different from "you are obliged to do nothing when the pornography user thumbs through Penthouse on the park bench next to where your children play". Obligation-talk is inherently honest about who is being imposed upon. Rights-talk isn't.

The nice thing about obligations is that it re-introduces the concept of standing into the conversation. Take for instance the right to bear arms. This has never been understood to mean that felons, for example, have a right to guns. Of course, the origin of rights had to do with standing. The root of rights talk if I remember correctly is the rights of the baptised in Canon Law. Of course once the Englightenment is introduced, we are no longer allowed to make differenciations in standing.

Zippy, the difficulty is not really linguistic. It may be assuaged, for a while, with different terminology but the root problem inheres in the complexity of interactions, not the terms we use. There are terms that can to some extent prevent dishonesty--for a while. These appear to be more honest. But honesty is a virtue of human nature.

No term has the power to do away with the double features of a relation. The double features of active and passive, voluntary and involuntary, internal and external, positive and negative are altogether too much for any single term to address. As a result, even neologism may succumb to ambiguity--especially after disagreeable terms have been "kicked" out.

The better solution is to continue to use rights-talk, or any talk, honestly. This requires an honest assessment of the term, its superfluous use, its academic use, its popular use. We know that its potency doesn't arise from superfluity. Banishment of terms is tried-and-false method.

Zippy, the difficulty is not really linguistic.

Well, again, I am not attempting to unearth THE difficulty, as in the ultimate and comprehensive answer to the question asked by this blog, let alone am I proposing a "solution". I'm just pointing out that rights are merely a species of obligation viewed backwards, and that viewing them forwards - as obligations - brings clarity to our discourse.

Post a comment

Bold Italic Underline Quote

Note: In order to limit duplicate comments, please submit a comment only once. A comment may take a few minutes to appear beneath the article.

Although this site does not actively hold comments for moderation, some comments are automatically held by the blog system. For best results, limit the number of links (including links in your signature line to your own website) to under 3 per comment as all comments with a large number of links will be automatically held. If your comment is held for any reason, please be patient and an author or administrator will approve it. Do not resubmit the same comment as subsequent submissions of the same comment will be held as well.