What Are Human Rights?

Thursday, Feb 13, 2020

Values and Public Life seminar explores the question, “What are human rights?”

In a U.S. presidential election year, American citizens will inevitably be inundated with rhetoric about human rights, particularly around issues such as healthcare and the condition of border detention facilities. In the fall semester Values and Public Life (VPL) seminar “What are Human Rights?”, undergraduates explored this important philosophical question that characterizes so much of today’s political discourse.

The course was taught by Charles Beitz, the Edwards S. Sanford Professor of Politics and director of the Program in Political Philosophy.

“Although human rights has become a global moral language, it can be hard to say what, exactly, a ‘human right’ is and which rights should count as human rights,” said Beitz. “The only way we can clarify our understanding is to ask some philosophical questions about the role human rights play in moral discussion and the reasons we should care about them.”

Many students had taken other courses on human rights policies but opted to take “What are Human Rights?” for a better understanding of their philosophical underpinnings.

“While my education in the Woodrow Wilson School, my junior independent work, and my senior thesis have all focused on the nature of human rights from a policy perspective as a project of international law and post-conflict justice, I wanted to ensure that my understanding of the topic included both a political as well as philosophical grounding,” said Kaveh Badrei.

Oliver Whang, a junior majoring in philosophy, agreed: “Although I had an intuitive idea of what human rights were, I didn't really understand their philosophical grounding.”

In addition to providing a foundational understanding of the philosophy behind human rights, the course helped students realize that the relationship between politics and human rights is less straightforward than they might have anticipated.

“[The course] was a perfect mix of philosophy and politics,” said Whang. “We were able to have substantive theoretical discussions about global justice and our moral obligations to one another, and then assess those principles as they have manifested in the human rights doctrine and practice.”

He continued: “Often human rights are treated as these untouchable, philosophically pure trumps that transcend the ‘dirty’ political and economic systems that web the globe. What I realized in this class was that, in reality, human rights are not like this. They are philosophically motivated and politically corrupted.”

Joseph Ort, a junior concentrating in history and earning a certificate in values and public life, came to a similar conclusion: “We studied the shape of the right itself, how it might persist in time or space across human history, and how theories about human nature or international relations can explicate its sanctity in our shared political lives. Learning about the values that underlie human rights gave me a far more nuanced appreciation of their constant invocation in our news cycle, politics, and academic discourses.”

Students were also surprised by the relative newness of the literature and theories surrounding human rights.

“Today, we might tend to think that these ideas are obviousYet, for the grand part of history — minus the last 70 years or so — these ideas were neither fully accepted nor endorsed,” said Manuel Gomez Castaño, a senior majoring in politics and pursuing a certificate in values and public life. “This made it all the more exciting for me as I know now that there is still much work to be done in this regard and I hope one day to add if even just a small contribution to this field.”

Unsurprisingly, many students who took the course have worked or plan to work on human rights and found the real-world application of the course’s central themes particularly useful.

Irene Hsu, a senior concentrating in sociology, says her work with refugees this past summer made her think a lot about international human rights and their implications on the daily lives of people.

“I liked how a lot of the ideas we discussed in class were directly applicable to the issues I saw around me,” said Hsu. “For example, discussing human rights as they related to women and as they related to business ethics helped clarify the way in which I saw important normative and non-normative concerns regarding the two topics and the way in which social movements can aid these issues.”

“I came away with a deeper understanding of the intrinsic link between the practice and the study of human rights within the field of political philosophy,” said Badrei. “Human rights are not simply the subject of philosophical inquiry and political theory but rather a direct project of international law that aspire to impact the lives and well-being of individuals around the world.”

He added: “This course emphasized the significance of maintaining an approach to human rights that takes up both the practice and the philosophy in order to develop an accurate idea of what constitutes human rights.”

“It was exciting to watch the students connect our spirited philosophical debates with their own experiences and plans for the future,” said Beitz. “Speaking as a teacher, nothing could be more rewarding.”