George Will argues that a political discourse dominated by “rights talk” is bound to overemphasize the thymotic component of moral life. If our moral landscape is entirely populated by rights bearing individuals who obsessively declare their entitlements then the centrality of rights will produce a kind of angry moral competitiveness—-Will essentially describes a much more banal, innocuous version of Hobbes’ state of nature in a Whole Foods parking lot. In his version, the overarching fear of death is replaced by the fear of losing a choice spot.
Behind the practiced hyperbole there’s something to this: the notion that rights in themselves exhaustively describe our moral lives presupposes a denuded and abstract account of the whole human person. The central insight of individual human rights, the unique significance of every human being, becomes “imperial” when not extended to other individuals by way of another moral insight central to the assignment of rights, human equality. Any account of individual rights that denies the essential gregariousness of the human person will inevitably struggle to connect the recognition of one’s own personal significance to the reciprocal recognition of the significance of others. Alan Gewirth famously described the foundation for such an inference as the Principle of Generic Consistency—an account so abstruse it could not possibly capture the actual experience of the way we discern and accept the moral importance of other human beings. In the Lockean account, the connection between rational rights bearing individuals is forged by consentual contract, or by our capacity for making rational arrangements with others on the basis of enlightened self-interest. Needless to say, it’s not clear that these arrangements require the most powerful moral bonds—the kinds of contracts Locke describes are themselves competitive versus moral, only understanding moral obligations as necessary contractual concessions. The Locekan version of contractual peace is not all that different from the rule governed Whole Foods parking lot Will describes.
The issue here is not merely that any conception of rights needs to be accompanied by the assignment of duties—the somewhat contrived bifurcation between rights and duties already signifies a departure from a realist depiction of lived moral experience. A more pressing problem is that the reduction of morality to rights requires a solipsistic encapsulation of the individual from the conditions that clarify and substantiate the claim of personal significance—from the conditions of loving dependance upon others or equal creation by God. The thymotic assertion that often accompanies rights talk has to be more than an empty demand—it’s hard to square the lionization of the individual that accompanies the more libertarian interpretations of rights with the pale shadow of the human person their account assumes.