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Few certainties on the concept of rights

THE American penchant for the possession and use of guns is underpinned by the so-called "right" to bear arms. This "right" is given a quasi-religious ring to it in the suggestion that it is enshrined in the American constitution. More bizarrely, it is sometimes referred to as a "God-given right".

The abortion debate, in turn, is played out as a conflict between the competing rights of the mother and those of the foetus, with all the ambiguity that this engenders. Once again, talk of "human rights" is in the air, intensifying our awareness that they do not drop from the sky, but are generated by us as we seek to make sense of our obligations to one another. Natural rights theory was the revolutionary doctrine of the 17th and 18th centuries, invoked to justify resistance to unjust laws and tyrannical regimes.

It did not sit easily with some of the most influential writers of the time. Edmund Burke, the political theorist, in his polemic against the French Revolution, vehemently attacked what he called "abstract rights".

Earlier, philosopher Jeremy Bentham, in his withering criticism of the French Declaration of Rights, had dismissed the idea of natural human rights as "nonsense on stilts". Invoking the concept of rights can so easily degenerate into explaining the obscure by the even more obscure.

PHILIP O'NEILL

By email

Belfast Telegraph

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