Toward a Unified Theory of Professional Ethics and Human Rights

49 Pages Posted: 25 Apr 2011 Last revised: 14 Apr 2013

Date Written: March 1, 2012


This article begins with a simple empirical claim – that professionals (doctors, lawyers, and psychologists, among others) may either facilitate or prevent human rights violations. They possess this power by virtue of their expertise, access and social status. Building on this claim, I argue that states are dependent upon the assistance of professionals in order to comply with their international human rights obligations. Compliance with these obligations is an essential condition of the legitimacy of states; non-compliance is a matter of global concern and, if systemic, renders the state liable to interference from external agents in the international community. It follows that states are, in this fundamental respect, dependent upon professionals. But professionals are also dependent upon states; their ability to perform their professional functions in full is contingent upon privileges and protections accorded to them by the state. Given this mutual dependence, I advance a contractarian account of the relationship between professionals and the state – one that gives rise to a duty on the part of professionals to assist the state with the performance of its human rights obligations. The content of that duty varies across professions and among professionals, since it depends upon the nature of the professional’s expertise, and the degree of access and social status she possesses. This account offers both theoretical and practical benefits. First, it avoids human rights foundationalism because it ties the ethical obligations of professionals to international legal norms, rather than to human rights conceived as ethical claims. Second, the account offers a further approach for bridging the gap that scholars and advocates have identified between human rights commitments and compliance. The incorporation of human rights norms into domestic law, political institutions and corporate governance may all contribute to this. But the essential role professionals can play in the acculturation of and compliance with human rights has been neglected. The account advanced here has a number of important practical implications – not least, the need for more (and better) human rights education and mentorship for professionals.

Keywords: professional ethics, human rights, unified theory, social contract, cosmopolitanism, professional essentialism

JEL Classification: K33

Suggested Citation

Marks, Jonathan H., Toward a Unified Theory of Professional Ethics and Human Rights (March 1, 2012). Michigan Journal of International Law, Vol. 33, p. 215, Winter 2012, Available at SSRN:

Jonathan H. Marks (Contact Author)

Pennsylvania State University ( email )

135 Sparks Building
University Park, PA 16802
United States
814-865 5938 (Phone)


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