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Human Rights and Agency: James Griffin, On Human Rights ER 11, Gov E-1040 Spring 2012.

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Presentation on theme: "Human Rights and Agency: James Griffin, On Human Rights ER 11, Gov E-1040 Spring 2012."— Presentation transcript:

1 Human Rights and Agency: James Griffin, On Human Rights ER 11, Gov E-1040 Spring 2012

2 The goal – very roughly human rights as protections of “normative agency” agency involved in choosing worthwhile life central component of distinctively human life

3 Keep an eye on this question: Why does this generate rights?

4 Three lectures

5 Kantian themes: dignity “what we attach value to, what we regard as giving dignity to human life, is our capacity to choose and to pursue our conception of a worthwhile life” (p 44) it is “mere possession of this common capacity to identify the good that guarantees persons the protection of human rights.” (p 46) threshold notion: do children have it? Can old people lose it?

6 “dignitas”

7 Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) Oration on the Dignity of Man (1486) God gave human beings choice to locate themselves somewhere on the (already existing) chain of being Having that freedom is “human dignity”


9 Chain of Being


11 Thoughts like this had to be applied against still existing Aristotelian idea of natural slavery Major theme in age of expansionism

12 How literal is the white-male-ness?

13 So it is this idea of dignity pertaining to all human beings that Griffin also makes central – but importantly different from Kant

14 Griffin vs. Kant and Gewirth “That is not a derivation of human rights from normative agency; it is a proposal based on a hunch that this way of remedying the indeterminacy of the term will best suit its role in ethics. (…) What I do is distant from what Kant and Mill did. It is also distant from what Alan Gewirth did recently, in seeking to establish human rights by appeal to certain logical necessities. That he too makes human agency central to his project does not make his project close to mine. (…) I claim no logical necessity for my proposal that we see human rights as protections of normative agency.” (p 4)

15 Put differently: Difference lies in argument used to derive rights Not self-consistency, but arguments that claim reasonable acceptability to every single person claim is: this is all one can ask for

16 Why respect human rights? What mistake is involved in not doing so? Natural lawyers: because it lies in natural order of things Utilitarian: because they are generally useful devices of social coordination Kant: because otherwise the mind contradicts itself Scanlon/Griffin: because we must find living arrangements that are reasonably acceptable to every single person

17 Two ways for supplying account of human rights “top-down” – start with an over-arching principle or decision- procedure, such as Categorical Imperative “bottom-up” – “one starts with human rights as used in our actual social life by politicians, lawyers, social campaigners, as well as theorists of various sorts, and then sees what higher principles one must resort to in order to explain their moral weight, when one thinks they have it, and to resolve conflicts between them. I prefer the bottom-up approach.” (p 29)

18 Determinacy in idea of human rights

19 Not about human good or flourishing, but (merely) about human status

20 Central idea: distinctively human existence “Human life is different from the life of other animals. We human beings have a conception of ourselves and of our past and future. We reflect and assess. We form pictures of what a good life would be – often, it is true, only on a small scale, but occasionally also on a large scale. And we try to realize these pictures. This is what we mean by a distinctively human existence (…) And we value our status as human beings especially highly, even more highly than even our happiness. This status centers on our being agents – deliberating, assessing, choosing, and acting to make what we see as a good life for ourselves.” (p 32)

21 Three sources of rights derived from personhood

22 Human rights: protecting human status/personhood/agency To be an agent one must (1)choose one’s own path through life – not be dominated or controlled by someone else (2)have real choice; at least minimum education and information; must be able to act; have at least minimum provision of resources and capabilities (3)others must not forcibly stop one from pursuing what one sees as a worthwhile life AUTONOMY MINIMAL PROVISIONS LIBERTY

23 Two reason to understand human rights this way – particular role for human rights in moral discourse (systematic) – finds that in historical development of idea (historic)

24 Protecting Personhood: Kant vs. Griffin (p 36) Kant: rational personhood to be protected no matter what Not for the sake of additional ends “absolute rights” Griffin: exercise of personhood normally enhances quality of life “rights resistant to trade- offs, but not too resistant”

25 Kant vs. Griffin Kant: dignity is inviolable – can never forfeit or waive it – inherently inalienable – torture: never justifiable Griffin: dignity is not categorically inviolable, though standards for violations are high – conceivable to justify torture in particular cases, though would support general prohibition

26 Universality rights one can derive to protect personhood at this abstract level apply universally Different rights might be derived from abstract protections – dependent on technological advancement of society for instance

27 Freedom of speech vs. freedom of the press

28 Human rights in Stone Age?

29 Universality, cont. does not claim “human rights” have independently arisen in different cultures spread of human rights is spread of Western- inspired discourse claim about origins, not justifiability

30 Note contrast to Amartya Sen “cultures are inherently diverse, and ideas of, or similar to, human rights have arisen in different cultures at different times”

31 Human rights: reaction against abuses, especially religious intolerance, government oppression, discrimination

32 Such abuses occur everywhere – values protected by human rights can be appreciated everywhere

33 Why limit human rights in this way? Are “human rights violations” always violations of normative agency?

34 “Is torture bad only because it undermines normative agency?”

35 No – but that makes it subject of human rights discourse Particular role in moral discourse

36 Why limit human rights in this way, cont. One partner in unsuccessful marriage might treat the other coldly and callously; suffering caused might add up into something worse than short period of physical torture first partner, simply by being cruel, does not violate human rights Human rights play distinctive role – to protect personhood gives them determinate place, and makes sense of the human-rights tradition -- bottom-up approach

37 Personhood and Practicalities Empirical information about human nature and societies, limits of human understanding and motivation needed to determine contents of human rights right to life: implies right to health support necessary for maintaining human status – but not that life be extended as long as possible (“fair span of life” (p 101)) no right to flourishing Matters massively for end-of-life care; physician-assisted suicide, etc.

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