When Rights Go Wrong

COMMENTARY: In the U.S. and abroad, the language of rights is being divorced from the religious and natural-law foundations that gave rise to it — creating a dangerous political climate but also an opportunity for clarity.

Demonstrators who reject a new constitution chant and wave Chilean flags during a demonstration against of the constitution draft proposed by the assembly on September 1, 2022 in Santiago, Chile.
Demonstrators who reject a new constitution chant and wave Chilean flags during a demonstration against of the constitution draft proposed by the assembly on September 1, 2022 in Santiago, Chile. (photo: Marcelo Hernandez / AFP/Getty)

How do you evaluate the principles that govern a nation? If the concerns of our cultural elites are any indication, you focus on the sheer expansiveness and quantity of rights on offer.

This was evident in a recent New York Times headline regarding a proposed — and very progressive — constitution in Chile. The headline claimed that the proposed constitution, which was ultimately rejected by the voters, included “a record number of rights.” The wording is funny (is the Guinness Book of World Records keeping track of this category?), but the headline reflects a common way of thinking, in the U.S. and abroad.

In Italy, people who are following the ongoing general-election campaign know that “right-thinking” journalists and politicians constantly insist that one of the premier political tasks of our time is the advancement of i diritti, i.e., “the rights.” The use of the definite article suggests that it is not just a matter of generically defending human rights, but of promoting a well-known list of “new” rights that were, allegedly, previously neglected out of ignorance or prejudice but have now achieved the status of unquestionable moral truths. 

Of course, the language of rights has been a constant of modern politics since at least the French Revolution. What is relatively recent is the unlimited proliferation of new rights and their use as partisan-ideological weapons, rather than foundational principles around which people from different political backgrounds can unite.

“The rights” pose a particular challenge to Catholics. On the one hand, both the Catholic intellectual tradition and the Church’s magisterium have long recognized the existence and importance of human rights rooted in natural law, the Pauline law inscribed in human hearts. 

On the other hand, many of the alleged new rights actually clash with the natural law itself and with “older” human rights, including the right to life. Whereas heterodox leftist author Freddie DeBoer is correct when he states that “rights exist,” their existence does not mean that they can be fabricated at will for political purposes. When that happens, one must conclude that the language itself has been corrupted, a corruption that by necessity makes dialogue impossible. 

But then we have to wonder: How did we get to this situation, and how should we respond? Surely, we cannot give up on “rights” altogether. But then, how does one distinguish “real” rights from artificial ones, so to speak?

To answer this question, let me recall some observations by Simone Weil, who already in 1943 pointed out a deep ambiguity in the notion of “rights” that had developed in the West since the Enlightenment. She noted that a right is always entirely dependent on an obligation. In the abstract, a right creates an obligation, but existentially it only works the other way around: We can only recognize a right because we experience an obligation. 

This is the experience of respect: In front of a human being, we recognize something that must be respected. As Weil observed:

“The object of any obligation … is always the human being as such. There exists an obligation towards every human being for the sole reason that he or she is a human being.” 

Moreover, this recognition has a fundamentally religious character: 

“This obligation is an eternal one. It is coextensive with the eternal destiny of human beings. Only human beings have an eternal destiny. … This obligation is an unconditional one. If it is founded on something, that something, whatever it is, does not form part of our world.” 

By way of contrast, the worldview inspired by the Enlightenment (often known as “liberalism” in the U.S.) affirms rights abstractly because it ignores that “only the recognition of an obligation makes them effectual” and disregards the experience of religious respect that is the source of that obligation. 

The result is a completely different concept of rights, which Weil illustrates with the image of a child who cries, “Give me my piece of the cake!” A right becomes an extension of the idea of “ownership”: my money, my body, my life, my autonomy. Its foundation is not an experience but a claim. 

In the long term, this can only lead to a form of nihilism because rights become projections of the Nietzschean “will to power” of individuals and groups and can only be imposed by force, even if only by the force of numbers. Discussing Weil’s work, Italian philosopher Augusto Del Noce notes that a democracy founded on the Enlightenment concept of rights “leads inevitably to the victory of the principle of force over that of justice.” By a strange inversion, an idea that was originally associated with the idea of natural law becomes associated with its radical negation.

It is important to realize that, historically, the Enlightenment idea of rights could not have been successful without exploiting — without parasitizing, so to speak — a broadly Christian cultural background and the earlier natural-law tradition.

In this respect, the continued corruption of the language of rights may provide us with an opportunity. For about two centuries, two conflicting concepts of “rights” have coexisted and have been mixed up, producing great confusion. One of the best things about our time is that many of the ambiguities of the modern world are finally dissipating, and, as Romano Guardini predicted a few years after Weil, “the atmosphere is being purified. It is full of hostility and danger, but open and clean.” 

The ambiguity of the idea of rights is a good example: The more people notice that “the rights” are being used as an ideological tool, the more they will start asking fundamental questions about what that term really means. In turn, this will create an opening to rediscover the shared experiences that underpin our civilization. For this reason, the response to the abuse of the idea of rights must not be reactive and cannot be merely political. It must aim at reawakening in people those very fundamental, universally shared experiences. It must be, first of all, a witness.

If the foundation of rights correctly understood is respect “for the eternal destiny of human beings,” we must focus our attention, and draw our friends’ attention, to those experiences of daily life in which this eternal destiny can already be glimpsed. Above all, this means experiences of profound desire: desire for pure, unending love, desire for unity, desire for truth, desire for justice, desire for beauty, desire for meaning. 

The late Msgr. Luigi Giussani called this bundle of ultimately “infinite” desires “religiosity” and claimed that it is “the core of our humanity.” Using his terminology, we can say that the confusion about rights can only be dissipated by a clear-headed, personal awareness of the religious core of our humanity.