The Ethics of the Unsaid in the Sphere of Human Rights

16 Pages Posted: 19 Sep 2011 Last revised: 17 Mar 2012

See all articles by Louis E. Wolcher

Louis E. Wolcher

University of Washington School of Law

Date Written: September 17, 2011


The concept of human rights reacts to a world that is adikia (“unjust”), as the ancient Greeks put it, or out of joint. However, like the sound made by the tree that falls in the forest when no one is around to hear it, the disjointedness of the world remains invisible unless someone notices it as adikia, as unjust. “What the eye doesn’t see the heart doesn’t grieve over” (Wittgenstein). The ultimate ground of human rights is therefore ethical. The ethical intentionality of noticing and caring about the very real sufferings of others, not just representing them in words, constitutes the living origin of human rights. Only when concrete suffering is noticed can the abstract concepts and pragmatic maneuvers associated with human rights discourse be brought to bear on it. But there is a paradox here: since the concepts expressing the true do not and cannot express the totality of the real, intentionality’s aim is never completely on target. Although an excess of unsaid haunts every event of saying, the ignoble desire to forge a unanimous interpretation tempts us to ignore this excess. This essay claims that the role of ethics in connection with the justice of human rights is to defy the world’s course, whatever that course may be. Only by means of a relentless critique that always attends to the particular can the many abstractions of human rights discourse be prevented from becoming a farce, or worse.

Keywords: human rights, justice, ethics

Suggested Citation

Wolcher, Louis E., The Ethics of the Unsaid in the Sphere of Human Rights (September 17, 2011). Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics and Public Policy, Vol. 26, pp. 101-115, 2012, University of Washington School of Law Research Paper No. 2011-25, Available at SSRN: or

Louis E. Wolcher (Contact Author)

University of Washington School of Law ( email )

William H. Gates Hall
Box 353020
Seattle, WA 98105-3020
United States

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