Overlapping Consensus and Human Rights

Fenton, Elizabeth Mary, Department of Philosophy, University of Virginia
Arras, John, Department of Philosophy, University of Virginia
Lomasky, Loren, Department of Philosophy, University of Virginia
Brewer, Talbot, Department of Philosophy, University of Virginia

This project is situated at the forefront of a debate on human rights that began with their first codification in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, and continues unabated. The debate concerns the philosophical foundations of human rights: what those foundations are, whether they are single or plural, and to what degree consensus on the rights depends on deeper agreement on those foundations. In this work I examine two central arguments in this debate. First, the argument that human rights are practical principles for which foundations are either unnecessary, or, if they are necessary, the rights are compatible with a range of foundational views, making agreement on a single account both unnecessary and unduly dogmatic. The second argument claims that such agnosticism or neutrality with respect to the foundations of human rights is unsatisfactory. Human rights are grounded in certain bedrock moral principles and a robust, if limited, conception of what is good for human beings. On this account, agreement at the level of foundations is both desirable and necessary. The account of the foundations of human rights developed in this work falls into the latter camp. It grounds human rights in the intrinsic moral worth of human beings, demanding that certain important interests of those beings merit special protection. Those interests are limited to the notion of a minimally decent human life, a notion that is given depth and meaning by the list of central human capabilities developed by Martha Nussbaum. Acknowledging that any such list is malleable, and disputable, this account maintains that, with the appropriate limitations, such a list can be the object of a global, cross-cultural overlapping consensus. Such a consensus will be deep; it will not be a iii consensus limited to human rights as practical principles. Rather, it will be a consensus in which the deeper purpose of human rights is understood to be the special protection of human interests related to the ability of human beings to live minimally decent lives.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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