Rights multiply like rabbits. Human rights, civil rights, women's rights, gay rights, constitutional rights: how do you sort them out? James Burnham, philosopher and political scientist, quipped a few years ago that the time has come for someone to make a master list of rights.

Many of the alleged rights rest on sleight. Take gay rights. Don't homosexuals have rights? Of course they do. It follows, then, that one has a right to commit homosexual acts, no?

No. Thieves have rights, but it doens't follow that they have a right to steal. The question, really, is one of justice. The issue isn't who has rights -- we all do -- but what each has a right to do. Does a person have a right to steal? To commit a homosexual act? If the question is set up properly at the start, we can save a lot of confusion later. qIt is simply amazing the way people neglect to do the minor conceptual preparation that is necessary to any lucid discussion of matters like these.

The ad libitum invention of rights has become a major industry. The American Civil Liberties Union has cranked out dozens of books on the rights of government employees, servicemen, convicts, tenants, mentally retarded people, old people, students, teachers and just about any other group you can conceive. (Conspicuous exceptions: parents, property owners, worshipers. The ACLU has a set of old radical animosities against traditional institutions like family, property and church.)

Such handbooks can be useful enough, but there is something irrational, something belligerent, in demands for rights that refuse to acknowledge a price in obligations. Your right is my duty. If you have a right to welfare, I have an obligation to provide for you. The producer is the forgotten man in most of the rights that are put on the public charge-card.

At a deeper level, the modern world has severed rights from any framework of piety -- the sense of a moral order to which man is subordinate. Earlier (and saner) generations would have said that any right to do X depends on whether it is right to do X. In the discussion of things like abortion and homosexuality, we are now urged to be agnostic about right and dogmatic about rights. Nobody can give a social answer to whether X is intrinsically right, but society must recognize and even subsidize the freedom to do X by those who think X is okay, or at least deny that it is wrong.

It's social contract theory run amok. You can't have a moral obligation, in the traditional sense, unless you've voluntarily signed up for it. Morality is supposed to be the servant of happiness, and every individual candidate for felicity is invited to roll his own morals.

Thus we are told that no woman should be forced to have an unwanted child. Of course, few women are forced to get pregnant, but that doesn't matter; we've decreed that having intercourse creates no responsibility for the result. What's odd is that we haven't applied this consistently; the forgotten man is, well, the man.

Men should have the same freedom from unwanted children. If a wife can abort a child without her husband's consent or even knowledge, it would seem only fair that he should be able to refuse to take responsibility for any pregnancy. If the decision is hers alone, the responsibility should be hers alone. Imposing an unwanted child on a man should be grounds for divorce, with the father relieved of any duty of supporting the child.

For nine months, according to the champions of abortion rights, the father has no more right to his own biological child than a man who is totally unrelated. It seems a cruel violation of the whole modern idea of rights to insist on his relation at the whim of the mother. Why keep the old idea of parental obligation for only one parent?

But of course it's the whole modern idea of rights that is shaky and, ultimately, murderous. We hae duties whether we want them or not. That is a truth the ideologues of the ACLU and the Supreme Court are powerless to repeal.