The Philosophy of Human Rights

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Human rights are fundamental principles which aim to protect people’s dignity and well-being. The idea behind them is that no one should be treated less favourably than others because of their race, colour, sex, disability, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, birth or other status. Human rights are recognised almost universally by all civilised governments and most major religions. It is widely accepted that state power must be limited in order to protect those basic rights.

Despite their widespread acceptance and popularity, human rights have been contested for a variety of reasons. Some philosophers have argued that the concept of human rights is merely a set of social conventions which are not necessarily true for all cultures, and so should not be taken as a matter of moral truth. This is known as cultural relativism.

Others have defended human rights by arguing that they are justified as moral norms arising from natural law. John Locke, for example, argued that the state should be bound by a fundamental constitution that guarantees the rights to life, liberty and property. Similarly, Thomas Aquinas argued that natural law provides the foundation for moral principles of right and wrong action that can be used to justify overthrowing oppressive governments and creating new ones.

The philosopher John Rawls developed a different approach to the philosophy of human rights. He argued that the best way to understand human rights is to identify the main role they play in some political sphere, and that this sphere should be international relations (see his work The Law of Peoples). He also argued that the defining characteristics of human rights are universal freedoms and equality.

Many human rights treaties are built on this philosophical framework. They set out fundamental principles for civil, cultural, economic and political life. It is important to remember that human rights are indivisible, meaning that no right can be viewed in isolation from the others; enjoyment of one is dependent on the enjoyment of the other. A right to due process of law, for instance, is inseparable from the right to privacy.

It is also worth noting that human rights are a global phenomenon. Almost all countries have human rights treaties and are part of regional and international bodies that monitor human rights. Moreover, civil society is responsible for preventing human rights violations by companies and institutions, while all individuals have a duty to respect the rights of others.

If you think your human rights are being violated, it is important to act. There are a number of ways you can do this, including speaking out publicly and writing to government representatives and heads of state, as well as informing local organisations engaged in human rights activism. The United Nations has an excellent website which can help you get started.