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Moral Sentiment and the Politics of Human Rights by Sharon Krause

In human rights, philosophy, politics, theory on May 29, 2013 at 22:26

From: Moral Sentiment and the Politics of Human Rights by Sharon Krause, The Art of Theory: Conversations in Political Philosophy, http://www.artoftheory.com

Why do we have human rights and why are we obligated to respect them? This question provokes a certain amount of anxiety among theorists of human rights today. The difficulties of justifying human rights in the context of what one commentator has called “a world of difference” have helped to motivate the field’s turn to the political in recent years.1 Whereas philosophers and political theorists once treated human rights as applied universal ideals grounded in comprehensive moral doctrines, the dominant discourse now regards them as “political not metaphysical.”2

The political approach aims to avoid resting human rights claims on controversial moral foundations, and it (not unreasonably) sees the task of justifying human rights as intrinsically linked to such foundations. Because of this link, efforts to justify human rights frequently run up against charges of cultural imperialism.3 Yet while it is surely a good idea to refrain from exercising cultural imperialism, we cannot entirely avoid the matter of justification in human rights discourse. For we will never be able to agree on difficult questions of application if we cannot articulate why we have human rights and why we are bound to respect them. What we need is an account of the grounds of human rights that can stand firm in our world of difference.

Moral sentiment theory – the theory of judgment and deliberation found in a range of 18th-century thinkers but articulated most powerfully by David Hume – offers some valuable resources in this regard. It can be developed to suggest a non-foundationalist basis for international human rights today, one that justifies human rights with reference to the faculty of empathy and the fact of interdependence.

On the moral sentiment view I develop here, there is one fundamental and fully universal human right, the right to have one’s concerns count with others’, to be recognized as a moral equal whose interests and perspective are owed inclusion in the generalized standpoint of moral sentiment. Whatever more specific slate(s) of human rights may reasonably be derived from this basic right will reflect the deliberative engagements – and the moral sentiments – of those subject to them. And because this justification of human rights is rooted in common human sentiments rather than independent moral principles, it builds in motivational efficacy. It shows respect for human rights to be consonant with our own common concerns rather than something that threatens our interests and so demands altruism. Moral sentiment theory thus helps us to address two important challenges of human rights today: justification and compliance. In what follows, I begin with a brief account of moral sentiment theory as it was developed by Hume. I then sketch – again, very briefly – how the theory of moral sentiment might be extended to help us justify and motivate human rights today.

Read the essay

Reposted with permission from: The Art of Theory

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