In what Sense Are Human Rights Political

Political Studies 60 (1):180-94 (2012)
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Philosophical discussion of human rights has long been monopolised by what might be called the ‘natural-law view’. On this view, human rights are fundamental moral rights which people enjoy solely by virtue of their humanity. In recent years, a number of theorists have started to question the validity of this outlook, advocating instead what they call a ‘political’ view. My aim in this article is to explore the latter view in order to establish whether it constitutes a valuable alternative to the ‘natural-law view’. In particular, I distinguish between three ways in which human rights can be political: in relation to their (1) iudicandum, (2) justification and (3) feasibility constraints. I argue that it makes sense to think of human rights as political in relation to both their iudicandum and their justification but in a way that is not always adequately captured by proponents of the political view. Moreover, I also claim that, if we take the political view seriously, we still need to engage in the sort of abstract moral reasoning that characterises the natural-law approach and which proponents of the political view significantly downplay.
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