A Better, Dual Theory of Human Rights

Philosophical Forum 45 (1):17-47 (2014)
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Human rights theory and practice have long been stuck in a rut. Although disagreement is the norm in philosophy and social-political practice, the sheer depth and breadth of disagreement about human rights is truly unusual. Human rights theorists and practitioners disagree – wildly in many cases – over just about every issue: what human rights are, what they are for, how many of them there are, how they are justified, what human interests or capacities they are supposed to protect, what they require of persons and institutions, etc. Disagreement about human rights is so profound, in fact, that several prominent theorists have remarked that the very concept of a “human right” appears nearly criterionless. In my 2012 article, “Reconceptualizing Human Rights”, I diagnosed the root cause of these problems. Theorists and practitioners have falsely supposed that the concept of “human right” picks out a single, unified class of moral entitlements. However, the concept actually refers to two fundamentally different types of moral entitlements: (A) international human rights, which are universal human moral entitlements to coercive international protections, and (B) domestic human rights, which are universal human moral entitlements to coercive domestic protections. Accordingly, I argue, an adequate “theory of human rights” must be a dual theory. The present paper provides the first such theory. First, I show that almost every justificatory ground given for “human rights” in the literature – such as the notion of a “minimally decent human life”, “urgent human interests”, and “human needs” – faces at least one of two fatal problems. Second, I show that after some revisions, James Griffin’s conception of “personhood” provides a compelling justificatory ground for international human rights. Third, I show that the account entails that there are very few international human rights – far fewer than existing human rights theories and practices suggest. Fourth, I show that there are reasons to find my very short list of international human rights compelling: “human rights justifications” for coercive international and foreign policy actions over the past several decades have consistently overstepped what can be morally justified, and my account reveals precisely how existing human rights theories and practices have failed to adequately grapple with these moral hazards. Finally, I outline an account of domestic human rights which fits well with many existing human rights beliefs and practices, vindicating those beliefs and practices, but only at a domestic level.
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