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Justifying Human Rights - Some Methodological Considerations

Human Rights
Political Theory
Ethics
Luise Müller
Universität Hamburg
Luise Müller
Universität Hamburg

Abstract

Human rights are universal rights — they hold for all human beings. But are they also of relevance for any creatures other than human beings? With our current methodology for justifying human rights, we will never know: our justification is constructed so that it fits humans, and only humans. In fact, human rights theories are often criticised precisely because they exclude some humans — a charge that only works if the circle of those who ought to be right-bearers is pre-determined. But it is not clear why such a species-bias should be justified. Are there any methodological avenues we can take to overcome or avoid this bias? In this paper, I ask whether we can find a way to reverse this picture: instead of deciding who ought to be included and then constructing a justification to fit this group, we ought to decide on a justification first and then see who is included. I argue that the reason why other species have so far been excluded is that philosophers have taken the human as the paradigm case for ascribing basic rights. James Griffin’s theory is exemplary in this regard: the normative conception of a person at the centre of his justification is a fully functioning human with fully developed capacities such as language and rationality. If this is how we decide what warrants rights ascription, we automatically skew our justification against those who fall short of this ideal. This methodological stance leads to conservatism — after all, how can we know whether other creatures have rights if we take human beings at the centre of our philosophising about human rights? I present some considerations about how we might be able to overcome human-centrism when developing a theory of basic (human) rights. I suggest that instead of starting from a particular conception of a person, we start from an ideal of how we as humans (ought to) relate a) to each other and b) to other creatures. What justifies basic rights then, so I argue, is that they stabilise those idealised relationships.