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The minimally decent life approach to HR:
HR are rights to those things that human beings need in order to live minimally decent lives,
lives that are worthy of human dignity and respect.
A need for basic needs
If this approach is correct, it would distinguish HR from moral rights that are not HR.
We may have moral rights to have others not lie to us, or not break promises for no good
reason, etc. But if they do such things, this will not usually lower our well being below the
acceptable minimum. So such acts don’t violate our HR.
Some possible objections: Somewhat vague what counts as a decent minimum, is it the same for
all people? Some things we have a HR to are not necessary to a minimally decent life, eg: a right
to free speech, right to vote, right to move anywhere in the country... Some things necessary to
a decent life may not be things we have a HR to, eg: Health Care. DO all HR violations reduce
someone’s well being below the acceptable minimum? What about cases of violating HR
“nicely”? Are there acts that fall below the decent minimum but which are not violations of HR
(being robbed, ordinary crimes)? Why only HR to a minimally decent life? Why shouldn’t we be
entitled to some things even though they are not necessary to the decent minimum? (someone
steals your very nice car, you don’t really need that nice car, but you may need a car, but that
doesn’t mean that it is a human right to own a car)
HR and Autonomy: A Kantian approach
By our very nature human beings are autonomous rational agents. This is what separates us
from animals and makes us distinctively human. Thus, not only is it morally wrong to undermine
a person’s autonomy (person hood, our qualities such as rationality, self consciousness,
intelligence, etc...), but to do so is, in a sense, an assault on our very humanity and nature.
For this reason we find it appropriate to speak of human rights in situations in which a person’s
autonomy is threatened or undermined.
HR as Distinctively Political Norms: the social contract account of HR
“Human rights are political norms dealing mainly with how people should be treated by their
governments and institutions. They are not ordinary moral norms applying mainly to
interpersonal conduct (such as prohibitions of lying and violence). As Thomas Pogge puts it, “to
engage human rights, conduct must be in some sense official: (Pogge 200, 47). BUT we must be
careful here since some rights, such as rights against...............
Human Rights are moral rights of individuals that are in some way associated with the existence
of states, part of morality for states.
Before states existed in human history, the only type of morality was interpersonal morality –
don’t lie, don’t steal, be respectful of others, etc... But the emergence of states raised new
moral issues not (directly) addressed by interpersonal morality. This is where HR comes into
James Nickel’s on Human Rights:
Human rights are basic moral guarantees
We possess human rights simply in virtue of being human
Human Rights attach to particular individuals
Human Rights are high priority
Compliance with Human Rights are mandatory
Usually held to be universal
Exist independently of law
Nickel’s further explores Human Rights in Stanford Encyclopedia:
Human Rights are political norms dealing with how people should be treated by governments
Exist as moral and/or legal rights
They are numerous (several dozen) rather than few
They are minimal moral standards
They are international norms
They are high priority norms
They require robust justifications
They are rights, but not necessarily in a strict sense
Social contract theory:
Many of these philosophers approached issues about political morality using social contract
theory. Main components of social contract theory.
Contract theorists do not claim that there was at some timein the past an actual social social
contract. The contract is a conceptual device used to elucidate the moralitiy that applies to
states and their relationship to individuals.
The idea is that any legitimate, morally acceptable, state must incorporate and protest the rights
which rational individuals would insist upon as part of the terms of their joining the state.
Considerations in support of the contract view of HR:
The rights included in the UDHR (Universal Declaration of Human Rights) are rights that it would
be reasonable to include as part of the social contract. So contract theory can make good sense
of the status accorded to these rights by the UDHR.
Also, the kinds of rights that rational people would agree to in the social contract are rights
which, morally, should fit into the constitution.
Contract theory can also make good sense of the function of HR. Suppose we are in the state of
nature. Would there be any point to HR there? Would there be any work for the concept of a HR
to do? Some HR, example: the right to participate in the government don’t make sense in the
state of nature. Others have no real point in the state of nature. What is the point of the right to
free speech or religion, etc... Who’s going to stop us in the state of nature?
Even the HR to life would have no real function. After all, we already have ordinary morality
which condemns killing. What would introduce the concept of a HR to life in this context as to
HOWEVER, if we think of HR as part of a distinctive political morality, a morality that applies
specifically to the behaviour of states and their relationship to individuals, then HR
James Vincent on the structure of a right (5 elements):
A right-holder has a claim to some substance, which he or she might assert, or demand, or enjoy, or
enforce, against some individual or group, citing in support of his or her claim some particular
1) The subject of a right: An individual is usually the subject of a right, though it can also be a
group, tribe, family, company or even the globe itself.
2) The object of a right: is what it is a right to. This can be positive or negative.
3) Exercising a right: The activity which connects a subject to an object.
4) The bearer of the correlative duty: Rights are held against someone or something. The
attribution of a right is meaningless without the possibility of a correlative duty resting
5) Justification of a right: A right might at the least be conceived as what you can get away with –
by lodging a claim to it in the mind of the public and hoping that no one will come up with an
objection to it. It also suggests social acceptance of the rights as of great importance.
Rawls’ minimalist account of human rights:
They are international – meant to apply to states – in the sense that sanctions or even military
force can be used against states that violate them
They are minimal standards in that only acts that cause great harm constitute HR violations
So, genocide, torture, slavery, arbitrary arrest or detention violates Human Rights, but there is
no Human Right to free speech, or assembly or democracy, or to economic subsistence
Human Rights are limited to Articles 3-18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
How adequate or plausible is Rawls’ minimalist account of human rights?
Does not agree with the way the term ‘human right’ is used: the right to free speech, freedom of
assembly, and the like, are paradigm examples of Human Rights.
Why would we not be entitled to these liberties simply in virtue of being human?
Aren’t benevolent dictatorships violating at least one Human Right, namely the right to