7.3.4 Objection 3: ‘Rights inflation’

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Unit 7 Contents

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Objection 3:

There has been ‘inflation’ in rights language and corresponding over-emphasis on rights relative to responsibilities.

The argument here, which I touched on earlier (7.2.2), is basically that appeal to ‘rights’ has become so dominant in public moral discussion over recent decades that almost every issue is cast in terms of rights, but often in ways that are incoherent and tend to bring this language into disrepute.  In particular, the proper connections between rights and corresponding duties and responsibilities – which I outlined in 7.1.5 – have been underplayed or lost sight of completely.

Christians have been among many people who have seen a lot of force in the argument that such ‘rights inflation’ or ‘proliferation’ (as it is sometimes called) is a real problem.  Setting it in some historical context, it is as though the unprecedented international affirmation of human rights in the UN Universal Declaration in 1948, followed by other developments that raised the profile of this way of talking about moral responsibilities (including in the Catholic Church), led to it acquiring a kind of hegemony (i.e. a dominance that excludes other influences).  Indeed it is plausible that wholehearted Catholic embrace of human rights in the 1960s, which prompted extensive use of this language especially by Pope John Paul II, contributed to that effect.

However, we need to hold in mind that the problem this objection identifies is primarily to do with how the rhetoric of human rights is used, rather than about whether it is true and important that people have the rights that the Universal Declaration and Pacem in Terris (for example) say they do.  The response that is required, therefore, is that the rhetoric must be re-balanced, rather than that people give up speaking about rights.

It is worth noting that sometimes those who are most vocal in critiquing such ‘rights inflation’ are in fact ideologically committed to a position, often a neoliberal one, in which they do not accept the radical implications of recognition of the range of human rights that those documents set out.  What I mean is that they are happy to endorse a range of freedom rights, but regard the benefit rights that are affirmed equally as strongly in them as posing a threat to economic freedom.

While a general ‘rights inflation’ has to be avoided because it distracts from serious work to secure human rights, it is necessary to be aware that this line of critique can be a Trojan horse for a subversion of human rights that is certainly incompatible with CST.

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End of 7.3.4

Go to 7.3.5 Objection 4: Don’t ‘human rights’ conflict?

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