Human Rights Theory, 2: What Reason Do We Have, If Any, to Take Human Rights Seriously? Beyond 'Human Dignity'
25 Pages Posted: 23 Apr 2015
Date Written: April 22, 2015
This is the second in a series of papers I plan to post in the next few months. Each paper addresses an issue, or a set of related issues, in Human Rights Theory. The overarching subject of the first two papers — of this paper and the first one — is the morality of human rights, which has become, in the period since the end of the Second World War, a global political morality. For the first paper in the series, see Michael J. Perry, “Human Rights Theory, 1: What Are ‘Human Rights’? Against the ‘Orthodox’ View” (2015), http://ssrn.com/abstract=2597403.
In this paper, I pursue this inquiry: What reason (or reasons) do we have — if indeed we have any — to take human rights seriously; more precisely, what reason do we have, if any, to live our lives in accord with this imperative, which is articulated in the very first article of the foundational human rights document of our time, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and which is the very heart of the morality of human rights: “Act towards all human beings in a spirit of brotherhood.” Of course, not all of us who have reason to live our lives in accord with that imperative — and, in so doing, to do what we reasonably can to get not only our own government but every government to conduct its affairs in accord with the imperative — have the same reason. Those of us who are religious believers may have one or another theological reason. But many of us are not religious believers.
What reason do those of us who are not religious believers have, if any, to live our lives in accord with the “in a spirit of brotherhood” imperative? Probably the best known response to that question relies on a secular version of the idea of “human dignity.” However, it is far from clear, as I explain in this paper, that the secular “human dignity” response works as a reason to take seriously the morality of human rights. Be that as it may, what reason can one have if she is not only a nonbeliever but, philosophically speaking, a “naturalist” — and therefore one for whom, much contemporary moral-philosophical discourse to the contrary notwithstanding, “human dignity” is wholly unavailing as a “foundation” or “ground” for the morality of human rights?
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