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Common Ownership of the Earth as a Non-Parochial Standpoint: A Contingent Derivation of Human Rights

39 Pages Posted: 15 Oct 2007  

Mathias Risse

Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS)

Date Written: July 2007


Human rights are rights that are invariant with respect to conventions, institutions, culture, or religion. One concern about such rights is the problem of parochialism, the question of whether human rights can plausibly be of global reach and thus justify actions even against societies in whose culture those rights are not supported. I seek to meet this challenge by revitalizing a standpoint common in the 17th century, but that has since attracted only occasional attention and has not played much of a role since the Rawlsian Renaissance of political philosophy. That standpoint is that humanity collectively owns the resources of the earth. Human rights can be seen as offering guarantees that the imposition of the global order (i.e., the system of states and the network of organizations that provides for "global governance") and its presence on commonly owned space, is acceptable to co-owners. Human rights thus derived would be non-parochial because the standpoint from which they are derived is (assuming we can spell out the relevant notion of ownership in sufficiently weak a manner to render it so, a notion that obviously must be much weaker than the bundle of rights secured by the civil law). Lest one thinks this approach to human rights is excessively capitalist, materialist, misses the spirit of the human rights movement, or too obviously mis-locates the concern behind human rights, notice that what is at stake is ownership of things that make human life possible. The main advantage of my account is that it provides a grounding of human rights in extremely plausible starting points.

Keywords: Ethics/Political Philosophy, Human Rights, Intergovernmental Relations, International Affairs/Globalization, Political Science

Suggested Citation

Risse, Mathias, Common Ownership of the Earth as a Non-Parochial Standpoint: A Contingent Derivation of Human Rights (July 2007). KSG Working Paper No. RWP07-033. Available at SSRN: or

Mathias Risse (Contact Author)

Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) ( email )

79 John F. Kennedy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
617-495-9811 (Phone)
617-495-4297 (Fax)

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