What Are Rights?
AMONG THOSE ENGAGED IN THE PROMOTION OF HUMAN RIGHTS, there is general agreement that rights are an aspect of humanity. They are not dependent on such characteristics as race, nationality, or gender, nor do they depend on a person’s presence within the territory of a particular political entity. Rights, most proponents agree, are ethical norms with a legal content that requires that they should be honored and enforced by public institutions. Some rights, it is generally conceded, may be temporarily abridged by the state because of exigent circumstances; others may never be violated, no matter the context or the purported justification. Disputes over rights generally involve three questions. Which norms warrant universal legal enforcement? What circumstances warrant temporary abridgements of rights? What abridgements are permissible in such circumstances? This chapter addresses the first of those questions. The other two are considered in connection with the discussion of rights after September 11 in chapter 12.
In the eighteenth century, when discussion of “rights” became widespread, the word was used in a number of phrases in English and French, the two languages in which the concept developed. These included “natural rights,” the “rights of mankind,” the “rights of humanity,” the “rights of man” and, infrequently, “human rights.” Not exactly interchangeable, these usages had in common that they were all based on the emerging idea of individual autonomy and referred to what today we would call “civil” and “political” rights.