One hears so much about “rights” these days it suggests that it might be a good idea to see if folks know what the hell they are talking about. When I hear the word it usually means something like “wants.” Thus, when Albert says he has a “right” to that parking space over there what he means is that he wants it. I heard a man from Charleston recently explain why he hadn’t voted in the last election because he “had a right not to vote.” This is absurd. What he meant to say, as so many like him mean to say, is that he didn’t want to vote.
The notion of rights comes from the Enlightenment tradition that informed our own Constitution and was firmly in the minds of the founders of this nation as they worried about separation from the most powerful country on earth at the time. They were concerned about their rights, their human rights. The word has strong moral overtones and suggests, when properly used, that one is morally permitted a certain course of action. Thus, when I say that I have a right to free speech the implication is that it is morally right that I be allowed to speak my mind and others are morally bound to allow me to do so — as long as I don’t shout “Fire!” in crowded theater, engage in hate speech, or promote civil insurrection (or tell lies with the intention to misinform the public).
In any event, rights imply a corresponding responsibility. Rights are one side of the coin, responsibilities, or duties, are the other. But we hear very little about the responsibilities that are intimately bound up with rights, because we have reduced the notion of rights to wants — and wants do not imply responsibilities. Again, the moral connotations are strong in the case of both rights and responsibilities. And in saying this I am speaking about what folks like John Locke and Thomas Jefferson regarded as human rights, the rights that every human being is entitled to simply because he or she is a human being. This contrasts with civil rights, which attach to membership in a specific polity and which can be taken away by those in power, if we abuse them by breaking the law. Our Bill of Rights are civil rights and are not absolute in any sense — even the Second Amendment that guarantees the militia (not every Tom, Dick, and Sally) the right to “bear arms.”
Human rights, as Jefferson says, are “inalienable,” that is, they cannot be taken away. They can be forfeited in that if I ignore the corresponding responsibilities I can be said to forfeit the rights that I might otherwise lay claim to. If I kill someone, according to Thomas Aquinas, I forfeit my right to life and am therefore subject to capital punishment. I myself think this is simplistic, as it is not always clear when a person has killed another and thus never clear when those rights can be said to have been forfeited, but the point is that no one else can take my rights from me. Or you. They are “inalienable.” The principle is quite clear.
What is important to keep in mind when speaking about human rights are two things: (1) they are moral in that those in power can take them but they should not do so. No one should do so. The “should” here suggests the moral nature of human rights. Clearly, those in power can take them from us, but they should not do so: they have no moral justification whatever for doing so. And this raises the second point: (2) Rights have reciprocal responsibilities in the sense that if I claim to have rights this implies that you have a (moral) responsibility to recognize those rights — and I to recognize yours, since we are both human beings. The only humans who can be said to have rights without responsibilities are the mentally infirm and children. In these cases alone those who are not capable of recognizing their responsibilities still have rights because they are human beings. But with these rare exceptions (and these are debatable) all who have rights also have responsibilities and if we ignore our responsibilities we can no longer lay claim to our rights. We might want to keep this in mind next time we hear Albert shouting about his “right” to the parking space. There is no such right.