It’s been fashionable of late to reduce all manner of social struggles and conflicts to the question of human rights. This shouldn’t be surprising because the concept of human rights has indeed become one of the central concepts in modern political theory, and for good reasons.
The first thing that comes to mind is the idea of infusing the practice of politics with moral thinking, or to put it more succinctly, of bringing the state (or the government, if you like) more in line with ethical principles and thought so as to make it more responsive to demands for redressing whatever inequalities still exist, or are perceived to exist, in a civil society. To that express purpose, the concept of rights is ideally suited because it tends to endow all humans (and in a more restrictive sense, the citizens of a political community) with equal moral worth. Which is to say that these rights, to the extent they’re recognized, represent an extension of the moral equivalence of persons — each such right, again to the extent that it’s recognized, being an aspect, or a dimension, if you will, in regard to which each and every member of a civil society is presumed to be equal.
This privileged status of “rights” hasn’t been lost on political activists and the presumptive leaders of the many social movements which have sprung in our recent past and spread throughout the globe like wildfire. From John Stuart Mill to Martin Luther King, Jr., from Betty Friedan to Harvey Milk, from NAACP or Planned Parenthood or NRA to ACLU – each of these organizations or individuals have used “rights” as a banner, a call to arms under which not only to mobilize sufficient public support behind the heralded cause but also to carry the fight to a successful conclusion.
Just think. Everywhere you look, in every significant social gain that has been won in the past century or so – from universal suffrage to civil rights, from gay rights to the rights of the handicapped, from Brown v. Board of Education (which overturned the “separate but equal” clause) to abortion rights – there is this magic word “rights” affixed to it, attesting to its indefeasibility. And no wonder, because there’s no better or more effective way of espousing a cause other than by couching it in terms “the moral equivalence of persons,” Only then are you liable to muster significant support from all those who believe themselves to be discriminated against in the pertinent respect but more importantly perhaps, to demoralize the opposition.