The point about magic is that the particular nature of the formulae used and the names of the spirits invoked ('rights', 'the will of God', nature) matter less than that those on the receiving end believe in the reliable efficacy of whatever is invoked.That passage comes immediately after this:
A 'human right' is an inherently vacuous conception, and to speak of 'human rights' is a kind of puffery or white magic. Perhaps if we repeat claims about natural rights long enough and loudly enough, and pass enough resolutions, people will stop doing various horrible things to each other. Indeed, perhaps they may, but perhaps not. The point about magic...Three things strike me about this:
1) "Indeed, perhaps they may...", so such resolutions are not necessarily pointless after all, just not guaranteed to work, unless Geuss is only kidding and does not really believe that there is any chance these resolutions will make any difference,
2) it surely depends who is making the resolutions (not every body is powerless to shape the world, through force or other means, to its will), and
3) who precisely is "on the receiving end"?
To understand Geuss here I think it helps to look at a passage on pp. 137-138, in which he talks about the connection between (legal) rights, law, and sanctions. People only have rights enshrined in law, and this law is only meaningful if it is enforced. So rights without sanctions for their violation are worthless, and perhaps not even real:
In principle one could imagine a formal procedure that imposed merely intangible sanctions. The religious court which saw itself as the final and definitive arbiter of salvation might simply declare someone a 'vessel of iniquity' or a 'child of abomination', irrevocably condemned to perpetual spiritual blindness and perdition. It might then be thought unnecessary to proceed any further. Why bother excluding the condemned from social participation in the church, religious ritual, etc.? In fact the presence of the spiritually stigmatised might be thought to have a salutary effect on those who are still potentially saved. Although there was no visible and tangible force to this sanction, it might work as a sanction if all those involved firmly held the appropriate religious beliefs. It would not work as a sanction on people who did not believe. Magic is said by some anthropologists to be like this: it works very well in a society in which virtually everyone believes in it, but will not work either for or on those who do not. Cases like this, then, are not counterinstances to the claim that for us to speak of a legal system there must be some clear and specific notion of sanctions. Failing such a system of sanctions, there is nothing but a set of diffuse individual and collective moral feelings.One thing to say about this is that, if it's true that talk of rights is a kind of magic that only works if people believe in it, then why would anyone try to burst the bubble? Why try to undermine white magic? Secondly, if "rights" without sanctions have no more reality than do moral feelings, is this really a problem? If "everyone has the right to vote" just means "everyone should be allowed to vote" is it therefore untrue? Or unimportant?
My sense is that Geuss opposes rights talk partly because he sees it as being akin to religion. I agree with him that it has some such similarity, and not only in the sense that everything is like everything else. There is, I think, an important connection between religious language and metaphor or the use of words in a secondary sense. And that is what is involved in the kind of rights talk that I support.
He also seems to oppose it because, despite his reference to white magic, he seems to have at best mixed feelings about what is, or can be, done with rights talk. For instance, see this passage on p. 145:
If we have enough strength we can make others care about our moral beliefs, but if the doctrine of 'natural rights' means no more than that we are powerful enough to make people careful not to do things of which we disapprove, then it seems no more than a theoretically obfuscating name for a well-known and not necessarily particularly edifying fact of power politics.Again, talk of rights seems to be, for Geuss, either a mere expression of moral beliefs or a declaration relating to enforcement. The idea that they do reflect moral beliefs, but especially important ones, or that they ought to, but might not, be enforced seems to be ignored. He doesn't ignore these ideas all the time, but when it comes to the crunch he seems to leave them out. And this seems to be for the sake of avoiding theoretical obfuscation, i.e. in order to be clear. But simplification is not the same thing as clarity.
The term 'right' has two clear, but distinct senses. These are, first, the 'objective' sense (that is 'right' which we think ought to be the case or ought to be done), and, second, the subjective sense (I have a right if I have a claim backed up by an effective mechanism of implementation). It does not contribute to clarity of understanding to run these two senses together in the way that is characteristic of the discourse of human rights. (p. 146)This is surely just the complaint of someone who refuses to join in that discourse. The whole point of it is to blend these senses, to strengthen a certain class of moral claims by adopting a metaphor based on the law. It is a metaphor that Geuss in a sense understands perfectly. His objection to it seems to be based on the fact that it is a metaphor, and therefore theoretically obfuscatory, and the possible harm that this metaphor might do. But only the latter objection has any force, it seems to me, and then only if it shown that the effects are more bad than good. And this, I think, remains to be shown.