Philosophical Perspectives on Human Rights

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human rights

In general, human rights refer to a broad set of values or capabilities that are thought to enhance the agency and protect the interests of individuals. They are generally asserted to be universal in character and equally claimed by all individuals, present and future (see the Georgetown University Human Rights Law Research Guide in the Other Internet Resources section below).

One important philosophical approach to human rights is to regard them as an objective fact about the nature of humans that can be discovered through open-minded and serious moral and political inquiry. This approach reflects the belief that just as there are reliable ways to discover how the physical world works or what makes buildings sturdy, so too are there reliable ways to find out what moral reasons may be given for certain demands of others and on governments.

This view has been a key source of support for human rights ideas in recent decades, particularly in countries that once regarded them as a Western imperial invention or where the UDHR was viewed as a threat to national sovereignty. It has been a key driver in the growth of international organizations such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organization, and in the spread of human rights treaties, many of which have been ratified by over three quarters of all countries.

Other philosophers have tried to explain human rights in terms of their practical political roles. These “political conceptions” of human rights see them as norms for highly useful political practices that are developed and evolved by humans. Some of these roles involve the creation and enforcement of laws that are designed to protect urgent human interests and to facilitate interstate cooperation and surveillance. Other roles include setting standards for the evaluation of government behaviour by international bodies and specifying when economic sanctions or military intervention may be appropriate.

A related view of human rights is to treat them as a set of rights that are universal, inalienable, indivisible and interdependent – a set of fundamental rights that can never be abridged or taken away by a government or any other force. This approach was first articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948. It marked a historic moment in human history, providing the world with a globally agreed document that recognised all people as being born free and equal in dignity and rights, regardless of their sex, colour, creed or religion.

In some cases, the UDHR was supplemented by more specialized treaties addressing specific issues such as discrimination against women or minorities and the need for states to respect the rights of indigenous peoples in their territories. These specialized treaties allow for international norms to be created for groups that are deemed to have unique problems and needs such as the need for assistance and care during pregnancy and childbirth in the case of women, or the need for housing and access to food in the case of indigenous populations.