The Rights Revolution

INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS, VIRTUE AND A CIVIL SOCIETY – by Peter Corney

Some reflections on “The Rights Revolution” by Michael Ignatieff.( 1.)

Beware when the expressions of people’s opinions are unrestrained by reason and civility and focussed on a single issue.  When these factors join debate shuts down and the shrill voice of ideology dominates the public square. This is a risk in our current preoccupation with identity politics and its fruit can be bitter and divisive in society.

Our present, and proper concern, about the expansion of individual human rights and how they are to be pursued, debated and finally expressed in legislation will be one of the biggest tests liberal democracies face in the immediate future. The fabric of democracy is more fragile than most of us imagine, especially those who have enjoyed it throughout their life without much reflection on its delicate balances. It is a social contract that involves a balance of individual rights with the common good, a balance sustained by a set of common values and public virtues, the latter being as important as the first.

The Canadian academic and politician Michael Ignatieff has written incisively on these matters in the Massey lectures presented first on Canadian national radio in 2000. The Canadian experience is instructive as they have moved more radically in recent times on these matters than many Western nations. He says that “Every right entails an obligation. My right to go about my business without being assaulted or abused goes with an equal obligation to avoid doing the same to others.” He makes the key point that rights are reciprocal; when this understanding is present it gives rights the capacity to create community but if absent to fracture it. He also gives us the very important insight that “Rights talk” must not monopolise our language and discussion of the common good to the exclusion of the vital place of the common values and virtues necessary in creating a civil and healthy society; qualities like compassion, kindness, humility,civility, respect and love.

This can be observed in our present crisis in family life. We can rightly stress the importance of individual rights of woman, children and husbands in the family but, as he says, “this does not even begin to capture the web of love and trust that makes real families work.”

He goes on to say that “Rights are not a language of the good at all. They’re just a language of the right. Codes of rights are about defining the minimum conditions for any life at all. So in the case of the family they are about defining the negatives: abuse and violence. Rights can’t define the positives: love forbearance, humour, charity, endurance. We need other words to do that, and we need to make sure that rights talk does not end up crowding out all the other ways we express our deepest and most enduring needs.”

These lectures are clear and easy to read but cause one to reflect deeply on our public life today and the ever present challenge to see Democracy not as a finished product but a continuing work in progress and a gift to be treasured and nurtured.

Peter Corney (July 2018)

[Notes: (1) “The Rights Revolution “ by Michael Ignatieff  pub. By Anansi Press 2000. Delivered first in 2000 as The Massey Lectures on Canadian national radio by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).]