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Topics in Moral and Political Philosophy. Human Rights. Distinguishing features of human rights 1. HR  are minimal standards : they set the “lower limits on tolerable human conduct” rather than “great aspirations and exalted ideals” (H. Shue , Basic Rights , 1996). .

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distinguishing features of human rights 1
Distinguishing features of human rights 1

HR are minimal standards: they set the “lower limits on tolerable human conduct” rather than “great aspirations and exalted ideals” (H. Shue, Basic Rights, 1996).

distinguishing features of human rights 2
Distinguishing features of human rights 2

HR areuniversal: they cover all countries and all people living today (although some of them only cover specific groups, e.g. adult citizens; children, women, or minorities).

NB: universal ≠ transhistorical

Problem: how abstractly should HR be formulated?

distinguishing features of human rights 3
Distinguishing features of human rights 3

HR are high-priority norms. They are matters of “paramount importance” and their violation constitutes “a grave affront to justice” (Cranston 1967).

NB: This does not mean that they are absolute. They are “resistant to trade-offs, but not too resistant” (Griffin 2001b). There are cases in which it is permissible, and perhaps mandatory to violate these rights.

distinguishing features of human rights 4
Distinguishing features of human rights 4

Some add:

HR are political norms: they do not apply mainly to interpersonal conduct, but specify how people should be treated by their governments.

Thomas Pogge: “to engage human rights, conduct must be in some sense official”.

myths about human rights
Myths about human rights

- HR are not only negative rights.

European Convention on Human Rights: “Everyone's right to life shall be protected by law” (Article 2.1).

UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment: “Each State Party shall ensure that all acts of torture are offences under its criminal law” (Article 4.1).

- HR are not inalienable (imprisonment)

orthodox conception
Orthodox Conception

HR are moral right possessed by all human beings simply by virtue of their humanity (Ockham, Grotius, Locke, Nussbaum, Griffin).

HR are understood as natural rights:

O1: possession of HR does not depend on special transactions, achievements or special social status, or on the fact that a legal order has conferred them upon us.

O2: we discover these rights through ordinary moral reasoning (rather than through legal reasoning)

political conception
Political Conception

Orthodox view: HR have political implications but their political role is not invoked to explain their nature.

Political Conception: denies O1or O2or both.

HR are distinguished from natural rights because of their political role.

three desiderata for a theory of hr
Three desiderata for a theory of HR

D1: It should account for the distinctive importance of this class of norms. (Not every important moral consideration counts as HR.)

D2: It should be faithful to the human rights culture that flourished after 1945. (But can be critical as well.)

D3: It should have an answer to the parochialism objection (HR discourse are an ethnocentric imposition of liberal values that do not belong to non-western cultures).

orthodox conception1
Orthodox Conception

HR “derive from the inherent dignity of the human person” (Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 1966).

  • How should we understand dignity?
  • What is the relationship between dignity and HR?
griffin s view i
Griffin’s view I

HR are grounded in personhood, i.e. normative agency(what distinguishes human beings from non-human animals).

3 components to the idea of personhood:

  • autonomy: capacity to autonomously choose our conception of a worthwhile life;
  • liberty: the ability to pursue our choices without being coercively interfered with;
  • minimum provision: in order to pursue our choices we need a minimum level of resources and capabilities.
griffin s view ii
Griffin’s view II

Three categories of HR:

  • autonomy rights
  • liberty rights
  • welfare rights

NB: Personhood needs to be integrated by “practicalities” in order to have a full-blown theory of HR.

Practicalities: a group of historically invariant facts about human nature and social life that determine what a certain right protects exactly.

objections to griffin s view i
Objections to Griffin’s view I

The value of personhood is not sufficient to provide an account of HR


  • it leaves out many rights (such as the right to democracy), thereby failing to account for D1
  • it distorts the justification for some uncontroversial HR (e.g. right not to be tortured)
objections to griffin s view ii
Objections to Griffin’s view II

Personhood does not play any role in the justification of HR

Not all human beings possess the capacity for rational agency discussed by Griffin (mentally disable people, children, people in the advanced stages of senile dementia)

Should the orthodox view appealing only to one value in explaining dignity?

political conception i
Political Conception I

The bearers of the primary duties correlative to HR have a political connotation:

HR regulate the behaviour of the officials of a state (or other coercive institutions)

HR violations only occur when there is some failure on the part of officials.

political conception ii
Political Conception II

HR regulate distinctively political activities or the attribution of a political status:

a)Respect and protection of HR are necessary conditions for the legitimacy of political institutions.


b) (Extensive) HR violations provide pro tanto reasons for international intervention (military intervention, economic sanctions etc.).

Objection:can the same list of HR fulfil both roles?

rawls account
Rawls’ account

“Liberal constitutional rights”: rights possessed by all human beings simply by virtue of their humanity and upheld by liberal societies.

HR are a proper subset of liberal constitutional rights , i.e. those rights that generate pro-tantoreasons for military intervention against societies responsible for their violation (at least when widespread)

NB: military intervention is NOT the standard way to protect human rights (diplomatic and economic sanctions might be preferable).

Rather, the distinguishing feature of human rights is that their widespread violation generates pro-tantoreasons for military intervention.

hr as a trigger for intervention
HR as a trigger for intervention

NB: for Rawls a society that respect and protect HR is immune from all forms of intervention, including non military ones (diplomatic or economic sanctions; formal condemnation; calling on states to report on their human rights record; conditional offer of aid).

rawls list of human rights
Rawls’ list of human rights
  • to life (to the means of subsistence and security);
  • to liberty (freedom from slavery, forced occupation, and to a sufficient measure of liberty of conscience to ensure freedom of religion and thought);
  • right to property (personal property);
  • right to formal equality (similar cases be treated similarly)
missing rights
Missing rights:
  • right to non-discrimination on the grounds of sex, race and religion
  • right to free-speech and freedom of opinion
  • right to education
  • right to work
  • right to an adequate standard of living