Rights are normative social relationships; sociality is built into the essence of rights. A right is a right with regard to someone. In the limiting case, that “someone” is oneself; one is other to oneself. Usually, the other is somebody else than oneself. Rights are toward the other, with regard to the other. Rights are normative bonds between oneself and the other….
I will argue that it is on account of her worth that the other comes into my presence bearing legitimate claims against me as to how I treat her. The rights of the other against me are actions and restraints from action that due respect for her worth requires of me. To fail to treat her as she has a right to my treating her is to demean her, to treat her as if she had less worth than she does….
The critics point to the abuses of rights-talk. I concede the abuses. But rather than concluding that we should abolish rights-talk so as to eliminate the abuses, I hold that we should heal rights-talk of the abuses. Something of enormous worth would be lost if we could no longer bring rights, and the violation of rights, to speech. The critics focus entirely on the abuses of rights-talk; they do not ask what would be lost if we threw it all out. What would be lost is our ability to bring to speech one of the two fundamental dimensions of the moral order: the recipient-dimension, the patient-dimension. To the moral status of each of us there are two dimensions, that of moral agent and that of moral patient or recipient. When we speak of duty, obligation, guilt, benevolence, virtue, rational agency, and the like, we focus on the agent-dimension; when we speak of rights and of being wronged, we focus on the recipient-dimension. To eliminate rights-talk would be to make impossible the coming to speech of the recipient-dimension of the moral order.
Nicholas Wolterstorff, from Justice: Rights and Wrongs. Like Ron Belgau, I was largely convinced by Alasdair MacIntyre’s critique of “rights-talk” — until I read Wolterstorff’s book. Now I think that MacIntyre’s argument is largely, though not wholly, wrong.