Language of Rights

The halo around human rights has vanished so quickly that many advocates now question whether or not they should even speak of rights. It may prove more effective to urge policies or actions because they will reduce crime, improve the environment, or strengthen the economy, rather than because they will uphold rights. Prudence and efficiency have become more salient in many circles today. Why use the language of rights when you can advance the same cause with other words?

Indeed, the language of rights may repel those who would otherwise support it. In many contemporary societies, rights are associated only with those on the margins: those with whom the government, the majority, or the powerful would rather not be bothered.

Why, in such a world, do we continue to speak in the language of rights? There is no right or wrong answer here: but one learns a lot by asking the question, which is what we do as an essential part of the Symposium.

For some, the language of rights is not a tactic but an articulation of the goal.  Human rights can be understood as respect for human dignity, and it is this respect — rather than some utilitarian outcome — at which most advocates aim. For others, human rights represent a principled limit to state sovereignty and state power: a limit residing in the people of a society, not in its structures of government.

We invite discussion about how and when the language of rights feels vital, or preferable, and to what end? Do we want to persuade skeptics, rally support or make our own motivations more clear?