Human Welfare, Not Human Rights

44 Pages Posted: 12 Mar 2008

See all articles by Eric A. Posner

Eric A. Posner

University of Chicago - Law School

Date Written: March 2008


Human rights treaties play an important role in international relations but they lack a foundation in moral philosophy and doubts have been raised about their effectiveness for constraining states. Drawing on ideas from the literature on economic development, this paper argues that international concern should be focused on human welfare rather than on human rights. A focus on welfare has three advantages. First, the proposition that governments should advance the welfare of their populations enjoys broader international and philosophical support than do the various rights that are incorporated in the human rights treaties. Second, the human rights treaties are both too rigid and too vague - they do not allow governments to adopt reasonable policies that advance welfare at the expense of rights, and they do not set forth rules governing how states may trade off rights. A welfare treaty could provide guidance by supplying a maximand along with verifiable measures of compliance. Third, the human rights regime and international development policy work at cross-purposes. Development policy favors the poorest states, while the human rights regime condemns the states with the worst governments: unfortunately, the poorest states usually have the worst governments. Various possible welfare treaties are surveyed.

Keywords: treaties, international relations

Suggested Citation

Posner, Eric A., Human Welfare, Not Human Rights (March 2008). U of Chicago Law & Economics, Olin Working Paper No. 394, U of Chicago, Public Law Working Paper No. 207, Available at SSRN: or

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