Human Rights, Global Ethics, and the Ordinary Virtues

| March 10, 2017
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In a 1958 speech at the United Nations, Eleanor Roosevelt took stock of the progress that human rights had made since the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ten years before. Mrs. Roosevelt had chaired the UN committee that drafted the Universal Declaration and had hoped that, in time, it would become “the international Magna Carta of all men everywhere.” Her answer to the question of how to measure human rights progress has become one of the most frequently quoted remarks of the former First Lady:

Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.

The human rights revolution that was inaugurated in 1948 has now run its course: conventions have proliferated, human rights NGOs have grown in influence, UN rapporteurs do their work. It is striking, however, how rarely human rights advocates use Mrs. Roosevelt’s criterion for evaluating the success of human rights: whether the concept of human rights has actually reached into the “small places close to home,” the intimate sphere of private moral decision-making. Those who study the human rights revolution measure its progress using such metrics as state ratification of conventions, state responses to human rights pressure, changes in the incidence of human rights abuses over time, and so on. These are important metrics, but those who chart the progress of human rights in these terms often make the further assumption that once human rights conventions have been ratified, they inevitably have some influence on the “ordinary virtues”—that is, the common practices of trust and tolerance, forgiveness and reconciliation that are the essence of private moral behavior. They are ordinary because they are concerned with the recurrent essentials of our common life, because they express our learned instincts about what moral life requires of us if we are to survive and reproduce the life of family, neighborhood, kith, and kin. If state practice is improving, so the argument runs, it must be because human rights consciousness is beginning to change ordinary human beings for the better. Human rights scholars have only just begun to measure, in any serious way, whether this is actually the case. Scholars have used survey data to study public attitudes toward human rights, and their conclusion, broadly speaking, is that human rights remains an “elite discourse,” a language spoken by lawyers, advocates, victims’ groups, and bureaucrats—not by a wider public at large. If this is true, it could have important public policy implications for democratic debate. Political figures who use human rights language to mobilize public support on issues such as refugee assistance or humanitarian aid to strangers in other countries may find that such language resonates with a narrow elite, but fails to attract support among a wider electorate. Thus, while it is difficult to definitively establish whether human rights discourse influences private moral behavior and attitudes, it is worth trying to do so because the public consequences are so important.

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Category: Essay, International Law and Human Rights, Issue 31.1

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