Political Coexistence in the Era of Rights: Have Rights Gone Wrong?

August 04, 2021

As the second event of the two-part “Challenges for Democracy” series held during July, the Santiago Center along with the Chilean think tank CEP and Columbia’s Institute of Latin American Studies (ILAS) hosted the webinar “Political Coexistence in the Era of Rights.”

Following welcoming remarks by Leonidas Montes and Luis Eugenio García-Huidobro, Director and Researcher at CEP respectively, Columbia of Law Professor, Jamal Greene, commented on his latest book, “How Rights Went Wrong. Why Our Obsession with Rights Is Tearing America Apart,” in which he argues that while rights are an essential part of the US’s identity, they are the root of many of its problems, and that if the United States recovers its original conception of rights, the country will be able to properly address its current challenges.

During the event, Greene, a constitutional expert, explained this is a book about how rights should be considered under conditions of political pluralism. “The current ‘absolutist’ legal system distorts the relationship between rights and justice, reducing it to winners and losers. The courts decide who holds which right in a zero-sum game, in which the winners win everything, and the losers lose everything, because judges are unable to envision the coexistence of rights,” he claimed. “Rights that are in tension with each other can exist; the most obvious area in America where we see this problem is abortion.”

Greene’s presentation was followed by comments from Verónica Undurraga (LAW’95), Professor at Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez’s School of Law, and Francisco Javier Urbina, Professor at Universidad Católica’s School of Law. Undurraga commented the book resonates with the ongoing Chilean constitutional process. “Greene’s book is not opposed to constitutional rights. On the contrary, it claims rights should be expanded. The problem is that there are few rights acknowledged, but in an absolute way,” she said. Similarly, Urbina praised Greene’s work and remarked that although the book was intended for debate in the United States, it raises timely and relevant questions for the Chilean constitutional process. “It changes the framework of a long-standing debate around the adjudication of fundamental rights, refreshes this long debate in academia, and has the merit of making it relevant to the general public,” he noted.

The previous event in the series, “Political Coexistence in the Era of Rights,” featured Columbia Professor of Political Theory, Nadia Urbinati, who presented her book “Me, the People. How Populism Transforms Democracy.”