Human rights

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S105-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2006
Retrieved April 21, 2024, from

4. Justifying human rights

Insofar as human rights are moral rights, we can ask how these rights might be justified. The problem here is not one of finding an answer but of finding too many answers. Virtually any moral theory that takes human beings as it subjects can provide reasons for human rights in some form. Thus human rights might be grounded in human worth and the respect that is due to persons, in basic human needs, in the conditions for human agency or autonomy, in self-ownership, or in certain intrinsic human goods. Although there is often a tension between consequentialism and rights thinking, human rights can also be defended consequentially with reference to individual or social well-being or both (see Consequentialism). They are also open to theological justification and most religious faiths have some adherents who are willing to find a place for human rights within their faith.

This rich diversity of justifications for human rights is a strength in so far as it enables people who subscribe to different philosophies and systems of belief to unite in support of human rights. But it is also a weakness in that different theories and theologies can yield different catalogues of human rights: agreement that human beings have rights need not yield agreement on what those rights are. That is one reason why, if human rights are to be practically effective, it helps to have international, regional and domestic political processes that yield clear statements of the human rights people are deemed to possess (see International law, philosophy of). Indeed, in the face of so much possible moral disagreement, we might think it sensible to shift the whole idea of human rights into the territory of enacted law so that they become no more than legal rights. Many lawyers do indeed think of human rights as no more than the offspring of law. But the danger of that limited conception is that it places human rights entirely in the hands of law-makers; people can be deemed to suffer rights violations only in so far as the powerful grant them rights – if they are granted none, none can be violated.

Citing this article:
Jones, Peter. Justifying human rights. Human rights, 2006, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S105-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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