Just Words? Towards a Rehabilitation of Rights Discourse

It doesn’t take a detailed comparison of CNN and Fox News coverage to recognize that for any important political issue, word-choice is everything. “Woman’s choice” or “Pro-life”? “Undocumented immigrant” or “illegal alien?” “Right to bear arms” or “gun violence”? With our current discussions at Shared Justice, we could add to into this mix some words we’ve been using recently: “human dignity” or “human rights?” Christians reflecting seriously on this last question have, of course, landed on both sides, with some preferring use of the language of “human dignity,” and others insisting that language of “human rights” remains important. 

In a way, Shared Justice’s nuanced, principled-pluralist perspective toward public justice arises from just such a serious reflection on the meaning of words like “political community”, “government”, “citizenship”, and even “justice.” But what of language of “human rights”? Theologian Stanley Hauerwas is one among those who takes offense at the language of “rights,” finding it disturbing, impersonal, and alienating. But if we are to actively engage public life - and in part through thoughtful political conversation, we must probe this question more deeply: Should Christians seek to recover the language of “rights” for our political discourse?

While a much more comprehensive linguistic and philosophical conversation must be had toward settling this question than can be covered here, let these initial thoughts below serve as a tentative step toward suggesting that yes, indeed, Christians should not only use rights-language, but seek to rehabilitate it from the sorts of distortions that have perhaps contributed to Christians moving to abandon rights-language altogether. To make this case, I want to address two objections that might lead to negative perceptions of language of “rights”: a linguistic objection, and a psychological one.  

Language of Human rights

First, the linguistic objection. The thought here is that language surrounding human rights is too embroiled in controversy for it to be useful to even speak of “rights." Not only does it require tremendous efforts toward definitional qualification to avoid complete ambiguity in using the term, but to do so is to inevitably get oneself entangled in that mess of political hostility that Jeremy Taylor referred to last week as the “incessant jargon and politicization of defining human rights.”

Do Christians really have such a vested interest in using the language of  “human rights” that we need retain this term, even with the availability of more-or-less equivalent - and somewhat less politically-loaded - terms, like "human dignity”?

Certainly, the term “human dignity” does by itself cover a lot of ground without reference to the tricky language of “rights." As we’ve seen these last several weeks in our focus on the theme of human dignity at Shared Justice, focused reflection on the term can yield nuanced understandings of a wide breadth of issues relating to human existence, ranging from elder care, mental illness, and criminal justice, to religious liberty, biotechnology, and human life. All of these have helped us to think more carefully about the dignity and worth of human beings, and they have given us important considerations about what political responsibilities we have toward each other. Still, simply replacing the word “rights” with “dignity” will not do. As Slavoj Žižek remarked in a moment of linguistic clarity, “Words are never 'only words'; they matter because they define the contours of what we can do.”

What is it that we can do with rights-language that we cannot do merely with talk of human dignity? First off, we must recognize that the language of “rights” lives in the world of moral accountability. While talk of human dignity adequately provides language for describing one as being treated in a manner that lives up to, exceeds, or is beneath one’s inherent worth as a human being, it doesn’t provide a way to point out someone as morally responsible for injury in the case that one has been wronged. Talk of human rights, on the other hand, allows one to legitimately claim that one has not just been injured by being treated in a certain way, but that one has been wronged by someone who is morally responsible. To make moral judgments and to do justice, then, Christians need rights language in our vocabulary.

Should Christians seek to recover the language of ‘ rights”’ for our political discourse?

 Psychology of rights-language

Closely related to the linguistic objection to rights-language is the objection that an inordinate amount of psychological baggage is so often mentally connected to rights-language. When we hear talk of rights, we tend to associate it with a form of possessive individualism that pervades our litigious society. Continuing to encourage the use of rights-language, it would seem, only serves to reinforce our culture’s atomistic, myopic mentality of focusing on our own individual interests over against the common good.

The evident destructiveness resulting from rights-language being misused for a individualistic, self-oriented politics indeed naturally brings a feeling of distress to anyone who cares about the formation of robust political communities. But the abuse does not negate the benefits of rightly using the language of human rights in a manner that keeps our priority of loving our neighbor at the forefront of our minds. Though it may be difficult to retrain our minds from immediately connecting rights-language to such negative associations, it is exactly such a psychological reorientation that we need to cultivate in order to ensure that our rights-discourse provides an alternative, comprehensive, intergenerational and international, vision of justice that attends to the rights of all different kinds of people.

One step toward rehabilitating our view of rights-language could be clarifying between the different kinds of rights that humans have. In his recent book, Journey Toward Justice, Nicholas Wolterstorffmakes a helpful distinction between claim-rights and permission rights. While a proper philosophical treatment of the difference cannot be adequately reproduced here, suffice to say that some inherent human rights are claim-rights (which determine the moral obligations in other people with respect to how they treat you), and permission-rights (which, though permitted, need not be exercised). Adding these words to our political vocabulary as an additional layer of precision could potentially lend towards elevating the level of rights-discourse and discourage flippant usage of rights-claiming. Additionally, further Christian reflection clarifying what rights count specifically as human rights, as opposed to other rights humans might potentially have on top of their basic human rights, could bring greater optimism toward rights-language.

From Principled Pluralism to Human Rights

Not only can we mine the value inherent in human rights language to help alleviate suspicion toward its usage in Christian political discourse, but we can also reverse the direction of inquiry and see that Christian political considerations can illuminate how human rights language can be helpfully utilized. In the context of a confessionally pluralistic political community, for example, a principled pluralist vision entails affirming the right of your fellow citizens to equal political voice as yourself, to be freely exercised in order to advocate a vision of public life informed by their own convictions, even if those convictions differ from your own. Importantly, the neighbor-attentive, common-good-oriented priority attended to here first looks not towards our own responsibilities towards our fellow citizens, but to their rights. While an inward-turning consideration of my own responsibilities might not move me to immediately consider the potential desire of my neighbors to have a political voice, attending to their rights would. Certainly, there is no disconnecting the language of rights from that of responsibilities, but as in this example, a principled pluralist perspective helps us to see that, rightly used, rights-language can actually enhance a concern for public justice for the common good, especially when your own rights are not improperly privileged over your fellow citizen’s.

Up until now, the principled pluralist approach seemingly has not privileged discussion of rights, but seems rather to have preferred talk of responsibility, accountability, and stewardship. Is this because rights-language is inherently less amenable to an understanding of shared justice? Or, perhaps, in line with the tentative, exploratory thoughts above, could rights-language actually serve to strengthen a principled pluralist perspective? Add your thoughts below to these first steps towards discussing “rights” in public justice!

 -Jeremy Chen graduated in 2011 from Princeton University with a Bachelors in Civil Engineering &  a Certificate in Architectural Engineering and is now back in his home state of Pennsylvania, pursuing a Masters of Divinity at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.