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Chapter 10: From Modes of Responsibility to Moral Norms

Appendix 2: Limitations of the language of rights

According to the explanation given in question E, the language of rights is wholly reducible to the normative principles set out in previous chapters. Anyone who has examined the literature on rights knows that rights have proved very resistant to theoretical analysis. Initially, one’s rights seem to be a set of moral levers by which one can move others (or a society) to act or refrain from acting as one wishes. All the levers in the set appear homogeneous. But on closer examination, rights turn out to be a very heterogeneous collection of moral entities, whose reality cannot be denied but whose precise nature and sources become more mysterious the more closely they are examined.

Nevertheless, in modern times the language of rights has been very widely used in social and political philosophy, in moral theology, and even in the social teaching of the Church. If this language is theoretically opaque and if (as I hold) it is reducible to the more basic modes of responsibility, why has it been adopted so widely?

To begin with, everyone makes claims which he or she considers justified, and many such claims are widely acknowledged, sometimes even by those against whom they are made. Therefore, rights are immediately present in social experience and are explicitly conceptualized and discussed. For this reason, their reality is obvious and vital to everyone. Furthermore, people can talk about rights and reach some agreement about them without having any theory of morality. Indeed, even those who disagree about the foundation of rights can agree that there are rights and can even agree concerning some specific rights—although this agreement is easier when one is formulating a document such as the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights than when one is dealing with a real issue. However, in a political context one can occasionally reach practical agreement about actions required to protect or promote commonly recognized rights. Finally, the language of rights is an appealing one for leaders, since it calls the attention of those addressed to their own stake in society.

There is one sense in which the language of rights is unavoidable in moral reflection and teaching concerning human life in society. Since rights correspond to duties, and since duties are social responsibilities, one must talk about rights more or less explicitly if one is going to talk about social morality at all. Moreover, since modern thought about society makes heavy use of the language of rights, in many cases an important moral point can best be articulated by beginning from an acknowledged right and then clarifying the responsibilities which constitute the moral basis of that right. Vatican II does precisely this in its teaching on religious liberty; it asserts the right to religious commitment and practice against the infringements of political society, but the Council explains this right by the various responsibilities which underlie it (see DH 2–3).

However, the use of the language of rights often is very confusing. One reason for the confusion is the many meanings of “rights”; there is a tendency to suppose that all are similar in ways they are not. Again, because talk of rights focuses on claims, the language of rights is easily exploited by those who overlook or conceal essential qualifications, such as against whom and to what the claim is directed. Thus, the right to religious liberty often is misunderstood or misrepresented to mean that people are justified in teaching heresy or practicing it.

All things considered, Catholic moral theology and social teaching should be cautious in using the language of rights. In reading the New Testament, one finds a great deal about the responsibilities of Christians, very little about rights. Sound talk about rights should move quickly from the modern focus upon justifiable claims to the traditional focus upon the principles which underlie them, by generating the responsibilities to which they correspond.