The notion of rights as a substantive determination for how a human is to be treated is only effective in so much as those in power recognize their responsibility toward those without power. It is the responsibility to raise up those without power that forms the foundation upon which rights can serve as a meaningful imperative toward action. Responsibility to another is, therefore, more basic than rights. And the reversal of this reality in modern America is in no small part a driving force toward the vapidity of rights as a theory that can be constitutive of decision making.
Rights, seen as basic, are inherently violent because they pit the desert of one human being against that of another and coercion is the only way to resolve an inevitable conflict. Responsibilities, embodied fully, are inherently self sacrificial because they force each person to consider what of their deserts might be outweighed by that which they owe to another. Neither rights nor responsibilities are sufficient to ensure a just society, but the latter can at least give the language to speak of justice in terms that recognize a victory for one as loss for another. Viewed through the lens of rights, a victory may seem to only be the manifestation of a justice that was previously hidden, but already existed and only waited to be found. But that view cannot do anything to address the real feeling of loss for the party responsible for giving up what they believed to be theirs.
For instance, if I own land that is later found to have been stolen by the person from whom I purchased it, it may be that my responsibility is to give the land back to the ‘rightful’ owner, but that doesn’t make the loss of land by me any less significant than the fact that someone else may have the legal right to its ownership. Focusing only on rights implies that my sense of loss is invalid because I never had the right to the land in the first place. Saying I have a responsibility to justice at least gives the framework in which my real sense of loss is given expression and value. Rights are a zero sum game in which one or the other prevails. Responsibilities open the possibility for each participant to submit to the notion that human flourishing is often greater than the sum of its parts.
I believe my deepest qualm with rights as practiced in America is that it now operates from the wrong direction. It is understandable that as a minority group who felt persecuted, the founders of our country would start with what they believed to be their rights in opposition to the forces that held them down. However, now that rights are being discussed and put in place by the majority in power, the problems with rights are exposed. To be consistent with what it meant to claim rights as an oppressed minority, the government now ought to speak from the perspective of our responsibilities to one another. The outcome may be somewhat the same in principle, but the execution, as explored above, makes all the difference if you see rights or responsibilities as the more basic reality. The violence of rights can become problematic, but it is easily suppressed if embodied by one without power; the self sacrifice of responsibility is necessary, but hardly discussed when wielded by those in power.
To be sure, responsibilities can easily become an assertion of power just as problematic as oppositional rights. To assume that those without power need whatever it is that those with power want to give is to do no less violence to human flourishing than to pit the rights of one individual against those of another. I do, however, believe the distinction is worth making because there is, within the language of responsibilities far more so than rights, the possibility of a constructive notion of mutually beneficial community, even when the needs/desires of one member conflict deeply with the needs/desires of another. Perhaps the first responsibility of us all is to take the time and effort to simply listen and deeply hear the stories of the men and women who do not look and think and act like us – especially those with less power and influence than us.