An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Summer 2008

The legitimacy of human rights

Seyla Benhabib

Seyla Benhabib, a Fellow of the American Academy since 1995, is Eugene Meyer Professor of Political Science and Philosophy and Director of the Program in Ethics, Politics, and Economics at Yale University. Her books include “Critique, Norm, and Utopia: A Study of the Normative Foundations of Critical Theory” (1986), “Situating the Self: Gender, Community, and Post-modernism in Contemporary Ethics” (1992), “The Claims of Culture: Equality and Diversity in the Global Era” (2002), and “The Rights of Others: Aliens, Citizens, and Residents” (2004).

In recent years, the language of human rights has become ubiquitous around the world, shaping such nascent transnational institutions as the International Criminal Court, and justifying international interventions to halt genocide.1

Yet there is wide-ranging disagreement among philosophers and jurists about the nature and scope of supposedly universal human rights. Some argue that human rights constitute the “core of a universal thin morality” (Michael Walzer), while others claim that they form “reasonable conditions of a world-political consensus” (Martha Nussbaum). Still others narrow the concept of human rights “to a minimum standard of well-ordered political institutions for all peoples”2  (John Rawls), and caution that there needs to be a sharp distinction between this minimum standard and the much longer list of rights that the United Nations enumerated in its Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) of 1948.

Such disagreements inevitably raise doubts about what, precisely, should count as a human right. Walzer, for one, suggests that a comparison of the moral codes of various societies may produce a set of standards, a “thin” list of human rights, “to which all societies can be held–negative injunctions, most likely rules against murder, deceit, torture, oppression, and tyranny.”3  But this way of proceeding would yield a relatively short list. “Among others,” notes Charles Beitz, “rights requiring democratic political forms, religious toleration, legal equality for women, and free choice of partner would certainly be excluded.”4  For many of the world’s moral systems, such as ancient Judaism, medieval Christianity, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, Walzer’s “negative injunctions against oppression and tyranny” would be consistent with great degrees of inequality among genders, classes, castes, and religious groups.

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  • 1I first developed the themes discussed in this essay in my Presidential Address to the American Philosophical Association, Eastern Division, in December 2006. See Seyla Benhabib, “Another Universalism: On the Unity and Diversity of Human Rights,” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 81 (2) (November 2007): 7–32. A longer version of this essay will appear as the Lindley Lecture of the University of Kansas at Lawrence.
  • 2For an interesting critique of Rawls along these lines, see Alessandro Ferrara, “Two Notions of Humanity and the Judgment Argument for Human Rights,” Political Theory 31 (10) (2003): 1–30; here 3ff.
  • 3Michael Walzer, Thick and Thin: Moral Argument at Home and Abroad (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994). It is unclear to me what a human right against “deceit” would imply. Does it mean a right not to be lied to? This is a moral claim, not a human right.
  • 4Charles Beitz, “Human Rights as a Common Concern,” American Political Science Review 95 (2) (June 2001): 272.
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