by Robert Bellafiore

Contemporary political discourse should take a page from art criticism. The assessment of a work of art often relies on a distinction between the content—what is being depicted—and the form—the design, methods, and techniques employed to create the depiction. Both are essential. Appreciating a novel, for example, requires consideration of both the specific story told and the way in which it is told. Discussions of politics, economics, and the like, however, focus almost exclusively on content, with no regard for the form through which the content is communicated. The consequence of this emphasis on form over content is that two characteristics of our contemporary discourse go unconsidered: speaking of moral claims in terms of rights, and protests.

By rights, I mean not civil rights, those bestowed by a government, but what we usually call human rights, those rights that are thought to belong to all humans by virtue of their status as human beings. Such rights are typically divided between negative rights—those which preclude something, such as violence or coercion—and positive rights—those which maintain something, such as democratic self-representation.

Rights language entered common parlance in the Enlightenment, most famously in the Declaration of Independence’s identification of the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It has only grown more popular since then, to the point that I think it is fair to call it the dominant tool for articulating moral principles in our contemporary discourse. Speaking of ethical claims or obligations in terms of rights is so natural to us today that it is astonishing that rights are a relatively new concept: they have no means of expression in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, or Arabic before about 1400.[1] Today, however, rights reign supreme. We have the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the Human Rights Campaign, Human Rights Watch… the list goes on.

It is worth considering, however, whether the supremacy of rights in our moral language is not unrelated to the cacophony that concerned citizens of all stripes see in our conversations. The pernicious connection between the two emerges when we consider a fundamental—but suspiciously rare—question: on what basis do we make such claims about the existence of rights? The growth in the number of rights that are recognized as belonging to each of us would suggest that our moral sensitivities have grown impressively acute over time. We now claim many more fundamental obligations than those stated explicitly in the Declaration of Independence, and if the current trajectory maintains, future generations will identify many rights that we do not recognize today. Is there any argument we can make for the comprehensiveness of our contemporary list of rights? Is the future list of rights too expansive—that is, does it mistakenly identify certain conditions as rights that should be considered something else? Where do all these rights actually come from?

Unless the origin or existence of rights can be explained, one can hardly hold it against someone who does not accept the assertion of a right. Hitchens’ Razor, named after the essayist Christopher Hitchens, comes in handy here: “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.” In response to this line of thinking, legal scholar Ronald Dworkin has noted the fact that simply because a statement cannot be demonstrated does not mean that it is not true, and therefore the absence of a proof of rights does not mean those rights do not exist.[2] This is certainly the case, but it also means that someone who denies the existence of a given right is perfectly justified in doing so. Without an argument, both the assertion and denial of some “fundamental human right” are equally rational.

The absence of arguments in rights language is critical, for it results in the impossibility of reconciling competing rights. Consider one issue that occupies our minds today: the growing economic inequality in the United States. In defense of redistributing the wealth, one might assert that a basic standard of living is a fundamental human right and that we are therefore justified in taking from the wealthy in order to care for the poor. On the other hand, one might assert that private property is a fundamental human right and that it is therefore unacceptable to take from one person to give to another. It doesn’t matter here which side is correct—what is relevant is the difficulty of explaining which is justified in terms of rights. Both a decent standard of living and private property may be asserted as human rights. But if rights truly are, in Dworkin’s term, “trumps,” that ought to override all other concerns, we are at an impasse: a right will be violated no matter what. No resolution can be identified that does not leave one side without its humanity seemingly denied.

If rational argumentation fails, there is only one method available for resolving the predicament: force. The need for, and justification of, coercion follows from the inadequacy of persuasion. If it is true that an inalienable claim is being denied and that rights by definition override all other concerns, then one is justified in using whatever means necessary to protect that claim. This does not mean that people will inevitably resort to outright violence. It does mean, however, that those who want their rights protected or recognized will go about working to ensure that they are—regardless of whether others are convinced.

Enter the second characteristic of our discourse (which, again, has nothing to do with the content of our arguments and everything to do with the form): protest. Like declarations of rights, protests are marked by a near-total absence of any attempt to persuade the unpersuaded. Such an absence is not accidental—it is precisely the absence of a desire, or ability, to persuade that leads people to protest rather than engage in other forms of communication. Invariably, the purpose of a protest is to “make our voices heard.” Assertion, rather than persuasion, is at the core of the protest as a method of political expression. Philosopher Alasdair Macintyre is worth quoting at length on this point:

[Protesting] is now almost entirely that negative phenomenon which characteristically occurs as a reaction to the alleged invasion of someone’s rights in the name of someone else’s utility. The self-assertive shrillness of protest arises because the facts of incommensurability ensure that protestors can never win an argument; the indignant self-righteousness arises because the facts of incommensurability ensure equally that the protestor can never lose an argument either. Hence the utterance of protest is characteristically addressed to those who already share the protestors’ premises. The effects of incommensurability ensure that the protestors rarely have anyone else to talk to but themselves. This is not to say that protest cannot be effective; it is to say that it cannot be rationally effective and that its dominant modes of expression give evidence of a certain perhaps unconscious awareness of this.[3]

The white supremacists’ rally, the Women’s March, and the annual March for Life are not intended to convince the unconvinced. Rather, the very method of political expression that the participants have chosen involves an implicit recognition or concession that even if they did want to convince others, they would be unable to do so. Such protests may be effective at achieving their participants’ goal, whether that goal is ethnic homogeneity, the preservation of women’s access to abortion, or the restriction of that access, but surely we fool ourselves if we think that rational persuasion is one of those goals.

The fact remains, however, that there exist fellow members of our society who disagree with us. The preservation of that society requires that we at least make the effort to persuade and understand others. At this point, the natural question is: if rights don’t work, what does? It is beyond the scope of this essay to propose and defend an alternative; and though it is easier to expose flaws than to present solutions, Alasdair Macintyre’s After Virtue has done the latter as well as the former. Unless a compelling alternative gains widespread traction, the dissonance of our discourse will continue, not as an unfortunate though temporary problem, but rather as a necessary consequence of the form that our arguments take.

Robert Bellafiore is a senior at the University of Oklahoma studying economics and philosophy and minoring in international studies.


[1] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2007), 83.

[2] Taking Rights Seriously (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977).

[3] After Virtue, 85.