Should We Take the “Human” Out of Human Rights? Human Dignity in a Corporate World

| June 10, 2016
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In recent years philosophical discussions of human rights have focused on the question of whether “humanist” and “political” conceptions of human rights are genuinely incompatible or whether some kind of synthesis between them may be possible. Defenders of the humanist conception take human rights to be those rights that we have simply by virtue of being human, and try to ground them on some authoritative conception of human nature or human good. By contrast, defenders of the political conception take contemporary human rights practice as providing an authoritative understanding of human rights; by understanding the purposes of the contemporary practice, one can grasp the concept of human rights that is operative within it.

Many participants in this ongoing debate argue that the supposed incompatibility between these approaches is, in fact, not as dramatic as it may seem, and they identify different ways of combining the most fruitful aspects of both. However, defenses of this compatibility have been largely one-sided, showing that human rights theories that incorporate the central tenets of humanist approaches can also accommodate the core claims of political approaches. But this does not yet answer the question of whether theories using the political approach can incorporate the core claims of humanist approaches without sacrificing their distinctive methodological perspective. Prominent defenders of the political approach answer this question negatively. I think they are wrong. In my view, an account of human rights that disregards the humanist core of human rights practice cannot properly identify its ultimate goal and, as a consequence, lacks the critical distance necessary to provide normative guidance in light of conflicts that can arise within that practice.

If this is indeed the case, then there is a tension between two claims associated with the political approach: on the one hand, the methodological claim that a plausible account of human rights must take contemporary human rights practice as authoritative and, on the other, the substantive claim that human rights are not rights that we have simply by virtue of being human, but rights that we have by virtue of being subject to political authority. Precisely to the extent that the political approach aims to take contemporary human rights practice seriously, it must provide a plausible account of the practice’s humanist core instead of simply rejecting it, as defenders of the political approach do.

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Category: Article, International Law and Human Rights, Issue 30.2

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