Since the late 19th century, it has been a mainstay of Catholic social doctrine to insist that it is wrong to speak of "rights" without also speaking of "obligations." The apparent force of this assertion stems from a basic moral intuition. "Rights"-- at least as they are conceived in a liberal polity-- have reference to the individual. But what makes an action specifically "moral," in our common understanding, is precisely that it is not undertaken on behalf of oneself as an individual, but on behalf of others, or of a valid principle. This is not to say that actions undertaken on our own behalf are immoral-- we do, and must do, them every day-- every time we have a bite to eat or get out of bed to go to work in the morning. But they can't be the exclusive basis of our social ethics. It is this insight which gives the Catholic critique its intrinsic appeal.
But I hope it has already occurred to you that declarations of human rights in liberal polities do not have reference a particular individual, they have reference to individuals in the plural (just as collective obligations do). They are not a declaration of my rights, they are a declaration of our rights, and therefore they impose certain obligations, however minimal, on both of us. Thus, far from it being wrong to speak of rights without obligations, we might fire back that to speak of rights is to speak of obligations. When I say that I have a right to life as a human being, I am simultaneously imposing an absolute and binding obligation on society as a whole to hold my life inviolate.
If that is the case, what exactly does the Catholic critique mean? One possibility is that the social obligations implicit in declarations of human rights are too minimal from the Catholic perspective. Yes, we should restrain ourselves from killing each other. But this, we can all agree, should fall somewhere close to the bare minimum of our social ethic, rather than being the greatest act of charity we can conceive-- pace the Victorian bourgeois moralist whom Arthur Hugh Clough skewered so effectively in "The Latest Decalogue." ("Thou shalt not kill; but needst not strive/ Officiously to keep alive.")
This argument, however, is question-begging. It should be quite obvious 1) that political declarations of obligations should in fact be just as minimal as our human rights declarations usually are-- unless we want our lives and personal interactions to be monitored by the government and the whole arsenal of state coercion to be called in to root out our many daily failures of empathy and compassion. Tying obligations to basic, inviolate "rights" is a very effective way of keeping the social obligations which can be enforced by the state within this minimal range.
It should also be clear 2) that there is no necessary reason why sets of obligations which are legally instantiated should come to be seen as a moral maximum rather than a moral minimum. This is not our intuitive response to any other type of rule or principle, after all. If you were told to stop hitting your sibling as a kid, I suspect you perceived the request that was really implied in your parents' rule: that you should "get along" with your brother or sister (and perhaps you stewed over this perception in mutinous silence). You probably didn't respond, that is, by interpreting the rule against hitting as carte blanche to pull your sibling's hair (which is, after all, not the same thing as hitting). Well-- maybe you did do that, but I bet you knew while doing so that you were taking some unfair liberties with the letter of the law rather than its spirit.
Similarly, there are cynics in liberal society who try to live as close to the edge of illegality as possible instead of viewing respect for liberal rights as the bare minimum of their social ethics-- but there is no more reason to fault liberal rights guarantees for the choices of such people than there is to blame the parents who put a ban on "hitting" for a child who decides to start pulling hair or giving wedgies instead. All of this is by way of saying that liberal rights can't replace values such as character and integrity-- but it is not clear that they undermine them either.
There is one other way to make sense of the Catholic critique of "rights" discourse and that is to suppose that when the Catholic suggests that "rights" should never be understood without reference to "obligations," she really means that rights should be contingent on obligations-- on the fulfillment of certain obligations. In other words, I should have a right to participate in politics so long as I don't try to elect anti-clerical candidates, a right to privacy so long as I don't abuse it by onanism, etc. In this case, however, what the Catholic ethicist is objecting to is not that rights guarantees impose insufficient obligations on the rest of us-- but precisely that the obligations they impose are absolute, and the rights they protect inviolate. And this, in fact, is most likely what the progenitors of Catholic social doctrine actually meant to say. If this sounds like an unfair characterization, remember that at the time the seminal texts of social doctrine (the Rerum Novarum (1891), e..g) were written, the Catholic Church was still officially opposed to representative democracy, religious toleration, and most of the other key institutions of liberalism. It was also poised in the years ahead to forever tarnish its reputation by linking itself to anti-Semitism, fascism (Mussolini), and right-wing dictators with fascist affiliations (Franco).
This last interpretation of the Catholic critique is obviously no longer the one intended by contemporary thinkers-- Catholic or otherwise-- who place themselves in a similar tradition of thought. Whether we are talking about Mary Ann Glendon's criticism of "rights talk," Stanley Hauerwas' reservations about "the language of rights," Nicholas Wolterstorff's hesitations about liberal theories of justice, or anything Alasdair MacIntyre has written about modern society, it is clear that none of these thinkers views the basic rights enshrined in, say, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as violable or contingent upon the fulfillment of certain duties. Glendon has published an admiring book about the UDHR and nearly all the rest are on record as vehement critics of the human rights abuses of the American government abroad, whether during the Vietnam War or under Bush and Obama's War on Terror. I don't think any of them would countenance for an instant the idea that "enhanced interrogation" is morally legitimate once a prisoner has voided his or her rights by engaging in terrorist activity. Many of them-- like the modern Catholic Church itself-- have been strident and courageous opponents of the death penalty. I suspect not one of them wishes us to live in a Christian theocracy where there is no religious toleration, etc. So what is it precisely that they are criticizing in the logic of liberal rights?
I'm not nearly well-read enough in this field to do justice to the differences between the thinkers I have just named, but I think I can roughly summarize their shared concerns without blatantly misrepresenting their position. They would probably all be willing to put their names to a statement like the following:
"Human rights guarantees help to enshrine fundamental obligations which we owe to one another in a political society. They are therefore worth having. However, they, and the modern liberal ideologies which undergird them, have a dangerous tendency to bleed into a type of cultural (rather than political) liberalism, in which all human-to-human interactions are framed in terms of competing rights claims and the intuitive value of 'freedom' is conflated with an atomized 'autonomy' in which the individual does not feel her- or himself to be constrained to respect any obligations (short of the minimal obligations implied in respecting liberal rights)."
The critique expresses trepidation about the possibility that we will move from framing our moral questions at the political level in terms of rights to framing our moral questions at the interpersonal level in terms of rights. This is a disturbing possibility, because doing so seems to lend credence to the idea that the ultimate goal of life is simply to have perfect freedom to to do whatever you find personally gratifying, rather than the goal being to possess freedom in order that you are able to live in accordance with certain universal human values.
I am wholly in favor of this second conception of why freedom is a legitimate value-- but I suspect most of "cultural liberals" would be too, and would not recognize the former conception of freedom as their own. I think this becomes somewhat more clear when we look at what a person is really saying when s/he makes a rights claim.
The usual targets of the critics of "rights talk" are pro-choicers, feminists, advocates for gay rights and liberal divorce laws, etc. We can take our pick, but let us suppose we are talking about a woman who states that she supports abortion rights because it is a violation of her human dignity for the state to force her to bring a pregnancy to term. Many critics of "rights talk" might in fact agree with her thus far.
However, let us suppose she takes the point down to the interpersonal and social level, insisting that it would also be wrong for anyone to expect a woman to bring an unwanted pregnancy to term, or to employ a range of informal, non-coercive social attitudes and pressures to convince her to do so, or even to regard her choice as an immoral one in their own minds. This is the move that critics of "rights talk" most deeply fear.
I happen to think the hypothetical pro-choice woman is correct--up to a certain point in the pregnancy-- but that is not the issue here. The important thing to ask is: what type of claim is she making? Her basic claim (that she has a right to make a choice about whether or not to bring a pregnancy to term without having to fear informal social opprobrium if she decides not to do so) could be interpreted as a claim for personal gratification ("I should be able to make any choices I want and not have to respect anyone else's needs or wishes or wellbeing in the process"). But I suspect she would reject this formulation of her position. The reason she would do so is that it portrays her as a selfish and immoral person and she would refuse to be labeled as such. Believe it or not, cultural liberals also recognize that selfishness is a bad thing and don't want to be accused of it.
The critic of "rights talk" would probably recognize that she would reject the characterization of her claim described above, but this critic might persist in saying that the self-gratifying impulse is what really underlies her claim, even if she wishes to dress it up in more idealistic garb-- and even if she deceives herself about her own true motives in the process.
But if that is the case, it only serves to prove my point: she puts her claim into the form of a rights claim precisely because rights claims are claims about interpersonal obligations. They are therefore moral claims in a way that making the claim on the basis of personal gratification would not be. The pro-choicer here is saying: "You have an obligation not to afflict me with social opprobrium because of a deeply personal choice-- the circumstances underlying which you probably do not understand." She is appealing to basic moral principles which tell us we should not judge lest we be judged-- that we should not neglect the beam in our own eye for the mote in our neighbor's, etc. It is a claim about morality, about altruism, and about obligation.
It may be an invalid claim. One can certainly appeal to rights (and hence to obligations) in a hypocritical or insincere way. We are no doubt justly skeptical of the libertarian who maintains he is being "enslaved" by the government whenever it taxes his income. None but the most extreme cultural liberals-- and I make no apology for them-- would defend a neglectful or indifferent parent on the grounds that all parents have a "right" not to be hampered by obligations to their children.
But again, the reason why the hypothetical libertarian and neglectful parent frame their claims in terms of "rights" rather than in terms of personal gratification is precisely because rights claims appeal to morally legitimate concerns about human obligations. If we decide that the libertarian or neglectful parent is cloaking a personal gratification claim in the language of rights, this does not tell us that the language of rights itself is illegitimate-- any more than the fact that people used a language of "obligation" in the 19th century to argue that "slaves should be obedient to their masters" tells us that it is wrong to ever frame issues in terms of "obligation."
The cultural liberal and the critic of "rights talk" in fact have a shared moral vocabulary. They are both trying to figure out what moral obligations we owe one another as people. The differences between them have to do with which obligations they regard as binding. One leans more heavily on the obligation not to judge in cases of limited information. The other emphasizes more strongly the obligation to preserve traditional moral values, even at the risk of interfering in individual decisions. But they are both talking about rights-- and, through that-- of obligations.
So I say we call a truce on this question of whether or not "rights" is an appropriate way of framing moral issues. It would be a mistake to regard either "rights" or "obligations" as somehow an illegitimate set of values, because one cannot be conceived without the other (why do I have an obligation to respect a person's life unless she has a right to live? how can she have a right to live unless I also am under an obligation to respect her life? etc.). We should instead focus on where the real and interesting differences between our various positions lie, and this is in the question of what our moral rights actually are, and what obligations they necessarily impose on us.