Civic Virtues: Rights, Citizenship, and Republican Liberalism

By Richard Johnson Dagger | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 1
Introduction

Since at least the seventeenth century, the concept of rights has figured prominently in political debate, especially in the English-speaking parts of the world. It is no surprise, then, to find individuals and groups of almost every persuasion stating their cases nowadays in terms of rights. What is surprising is the growing reaction against these ubiquitous appeals to rights. According to a number of commentators, popular as well as scholarly, people have become too concerned with rights. In the United States in particular, they argue, we are caught in the grip of a crippling preoccupation with rights.

This reaction grows out of three different complaints about the superabundance of appeals to rights. One is the complaint that rights are by their nature intransigent. When individuals insist on advancing and defending their rights, they resort to a concept that leaves little room for compromise and makes it difficult to reach agreement with others -- especially when the others are insisting with equal vehemence on their rights. If "rights are political trumps," as Ronald Dworkin has said, then it is easy to see how a situation in which everyone is trying to play a trump card is likely to end in deadlock. 1 The more we appeal to rights, it seems, the less likely we are to find mutually satisfactory solutions to our social and political problems, for "part and parcel of rights discourse is a tendency towards forms of social life that are excessively adversarial, litigious, and geared towards modes of self-assertion, whether of individuals or collectivities." 2

A related complaint is that the concept of rights is too one-sided and individualistic. When we talk and think in terms of rights, the argument goes, we set ourselves apart from others. Rights belong to individuals, so the appeal to rights encourages us to think of ourselves as apart from and threatened by a society, state, or government that is constantly seeking to intrude upon or invade our rights. But thinking in this way blinds us to the extent of our reliance upon others. As we regard ourselves more and more as self-constituted individuals, we fail to realize how we depend upon

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