Widespread use of rights (the plural of right, as used in combinations such as women’s rights, civil rights, workers’ rights, gay rights, human rights and equal rights) results in a contemporary rights discourse that takes specialised form in law but is frequently contested in public discourse. The word rights commonly enters into such different contrasts (e.g. with ‘might’, ‘wrong’, and ‘left’), and engages such a spectrum of human activities (from simply staying alive to exercising varying degrees of economic monopoly), that contemporary debate is easily obfuscated by divergent and potentially conflicting uses of the term.
The singular noun right comes into OE (in forms including riht, rihtan) from a precursor in several Northern European languages. The word’s later semantic development was then influenced, the OED suggests, by meaning changes in Anglo-Norman and Old French dreit as well as Middle French droit. From its earliest uses in English, right had a cluster of meanings related to religious, hereditary, and socio-economic position in the prevailing social order; these meanings have evolved and intersected, sometimes reflecting, sometimes contesting and sometimes leading social change at different historical moments.
OED sense I conveys a broad, ‘moral’ or ‘justice’ meaning: that which is considered proper, correct, or consonant with justice, with an implication that what is just is also honourable, wise and consistent with laws of Nature ordained by God. A related sense is then that of something proper for, or incumbent on, a person actively to do, not simply to enjoy or receive: one's duty. Only in later developments of this broad sense, in response to increased individualism, is stronger contrast drawn between the potentially contrasting ‘personal entitlement’ and ‘social obligation’ dimensions of right that resurface in modern political arguments about the need for greater interconnection between rights and responsibilities.
Alongside this wide ‘moral value’ meaning of right, OED defines a narrower, more concrete meaning: that of specific entitlements and obligations available under the changing economic and legal system of feudalism and in the social and legal systems which replaced it. The force of right in this sense lies in the justifiability of any specific claim on grounds other than force, relying on law in the first instance as the basis of legitimacy. Considered as a category, rights in this sense (OED II) acquired their specialised form as the essential means by which a legal person’s position within the social formation was defined through a combination of rights, duties/obligations, and powers.
Whilst still based on a mythology of ‘ancient rights and liberties’, rights were increasingly restricted from 14c by an accumulating body of common law, which nevertheless left implicit, residual rights in behaviours that were not legally defined. More abstractly, rights continued to be understood, through to 17c, as part of a system of natural rights including a presumed Divine Right of Kings, or absolute sovereignty dented only by limitations such as those associated with Magna Carta (1215). As belief in natural law gradually receded, however, following bitter political experiences including the tyrannicide of Charles I in 1649, commitment to natural rights was increasingly challenged, including by further Parliamentary restriction on sovereign powers imposed in the 1688 Bill of Rights.
What most clearly makes rights a keyword, however, is the series of shifts in philosophical and political thought from 17c to 19c which connect the word with social activism leading to American independence and the French Revolution. Early conceptions of rights had either referred, as noted above, to ancient origins and existence ‘from time immemorial’, or been traced to Roman law formulation of civic values held to be common across classical civilisations (‘ius gentium’). With increased questioning of legitimacy based on natural rights, however – by the end of 18c, Bentham’s ‘nonsense on stilts’ - social thinking from Hobbes and Locke to Rousseau and Paine shifted emphasis from subjection to absolute sovereignty, through notions of consent (terrified and one-off in Hobbes, more continuous in Locke), to Rousseau’s social contract. These changes paved the way for justly celebrated statements of general – sacred, inalienable, human, indivisible - rights such as Thomas Jefferson’s in the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 that [all men] ‘are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; [that] amongst these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’, or Lafayette’s formulation of the ‘Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen’ (1789, assisted by Paine). The social thinking associated with such declarations involved a fundamental political shift: away from implied or residual rights, which continued in common law, towards articulation of rights as propositions conceived by viewing any particular ‘good’ from the standpoint of its beneficiary. This shift led to a surge in such ‘declarations’ of rights: already in 1789, for example, Jefferson (as American ambassador in Paris) could write in a letter to James Madison that, ‘Everybody here is trying their hands at forming declarations of rights’.
It is this fundamental 18c and e19c movement – from local and specific towards universal, and from implicit towards declared – that put in place the main conditions for emancipatory political conceptualisations underpinning social activism during 19c and 20c, in fields ranging from women’s rights, through US civil rights and more general equal rights, to sexual rights and wider human rights. The more recent history of rights discourse – ranging from the international, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), down in scale to detailed specification of consumer rights – combines the notions of an underpinning baseline entitlement with direct statement in the form of general or ‘universal’ propositions.
Broad statements of rights appear to many to promise an entitlement more profound than any historical (hence political or administrative) construction of social order is able to offer, based on values that are in some way intrinsic. Especially among the disenfranchised, and those who align themselves with them, arguing in terms of rights may accordingly trump asymmetries embedded in law and power in the struggle towards some (perhaps equally complicated) notion of what is fair or just. Contrary to such a view, packages of claimed rights are often dismissed, even ridiculed, as utopian and emptily inspirational, on the grounds that they leapfrog expediency and a necessary balancing of entitlement against obligation, and promote absolutes that only make sense if modulated (and in that process inevitably limited and potentially compromised) by reference to the complexities of specific historical and political circumstances.
The resulting tensions are directly political, involving continuing struggles between haves and have-nots. Some tensions, however, arise from complexities in the word rights itself. Confusion may arise, for example, because of a naturalising overlap between the word’s general ‘justice and reason’ meaning and its more technical, legal ‘entitlement’ meanings. There are also perplexing associations between rights, as entitlement, and values sponsored by right as correctness, as well as right or Right meaning politically conservative (the upper-case form giving rise to the wider political sense, based on an originally trivial metonymy from the French Revolutionary period when conservatives were seated physically to the right in the National Assembly as compared with liberals seated to the left). The complications politically from the word rights can be significant, potentially confusing socially-oriented emancipatory rights, often concerned with collective human rights, with arguments from reactionary libertarianism (e.g. the advocacy of the right to bear arms). Such confusion can make balancing more difficult when rights clash. Relating positions on rights to political positions is also complex. For example, in the US the political right draws heavily on the language of individual rights, though both liberals and conservatives extensively employ a rights discourse (albeit one with further splits on the right between libertarian and religious factions on what the rights they are referring to actually are). In the UK, by contrast, the political right tends to be dismissive of rights (e.g. with respect to the European Convention on Human Rights). The general situation, accordingly, is one in which positions adopted by the right on rights cannot be taken for granted. Nor are the tensions confined to right-wing politics. For example the present period challenges left thinking on how Marx’s 1840s critique of ‘the so-called rights of man’ as a ‘right of selfishness’ – ‘nothing but the rights of egotistic man, of man separated from other men and from the community’ - is to be understood, following justified rejection of Soviet-style efforts at implementation, within frameworks of many shades sharing the common premise of the individual.