Week 6

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Human Rights have been hailed as humanity’s last-standing hope (Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia, 2010). They are ambitious in potential and broad in scope. Yet, as has been iterated by Prof. Beaseley-Murray in this week’s lecture, the remain “far from ‘self-evident.’” This is because rights are a discourse, not an absolute (expressed by Ronald Dwarkin: “rights as trumps”). Instead, rights must be understood as needing weighing, not hierarchizing (Pildes, The Structural Conception of Rights and Judicial Balancing, 2002). As such rights discourse holds no inherent morality, instead morality must be applied, whether arising from Nature or other subjectivities, in jurisprudence. Supreme Courts have pronounced various precedent-setting decisions, and subsequently reversed those, a testament to the evolving practice of rights comparisons. Further, rights discourse can be weaponized, reflecting the interest of some groups over others, claiming the guise of universal altruism attached to Human Rights. For instance, a white slave-owner’s right to property can be weighed as more relevant to a judicial case than the slaves’ right to dignity or freedom of movement, etc. To complicate things further, the scope of a right must also be determined by law-makers and –interpreters, along with determining the wielders of such rights. Does one’s right to dignity preclude a state’s ability kill in order to protect a greater number of peoples’ lives? Here the question determines the scope of the “right to dignity”(ie. German Federal Constitutional Court, Bundesverfassungsgericht, Feb. 15 2006). The attribution of rights to persons is also contentious. Beyond the (long process of, though now largely past) debates in attributing rights to women, contemporary debates are centered instead on delineating when ‘humanity’ begins in fetuses, or how substantial equality might confer ‘more rights’ to certain people over others. (see Judith Thompson’s A Defense of Abortion in Biomedical Ethics and the Law, 1976).

To conclude my reflection, Human Rights are not a framework that can simply be imposed through state-legal frameworks to ensure the development of a just society. Rights require dynamic cultural fleshing-out and evolution, without which they remain a hollow shell of liberal-constitutionalist discourse, holding no concrete link to bringing social justice.