4.2.4 Human Rights as a Moral Standard

(This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book contents.  An archived copy of this page is held at http://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/424.htm)

As shown in the previous two sections, there are several approaches to legitimise moral rules and they express their authority in different ways: the feeling of empathy, the commandments of a religion, the reasoning of philosophy or the evidence of science.  These are languages which have emerged from different discourses, but they don’t necessarily conflict with each other in the behaviour that they recommend.

The language of human rights is a further alternative discourse.  Human rights are a codification of behavioural standards which have been agreed by negotiation, for the protection of every individual in society.  Their legitimacy is conferred by the negotiation process, not by an appeal to external authority or to philosophical reasoning, and they are expressed differently from the other languages mentioned.  For example, the Biblical commandment not to murder is expressed in the language of rights by upholding the potential victim’s right to life.

Human rights are negotiable, they can be inclusive, and they can adapt to changes in culture – but they are inevitably a compromise between different viewpoints:

  1. The scope of human rights is contested (2.4.1).
  2. Agreement is needed on their enforcement (2.4.2).
  3. A society needs to agree what level of socio-economic rights it should guarantee to people, to give them the capability to flourish (2.4.3).
  4. There are differing views on how to negotiate rights (2.4.4).
  5. There are arguments for State-provision of socio-economic Rights (2.4.5).
  6. There are counter-arguments, for private provision of charity as an alternative to the State (2.4.6).

The answers to the first three questions depend partly upon the answer to the fourth question: how rights are negotiated.  The arguments deployed in the negotiation are expanded in the fifth and sixth sub-sections.  The definitions, quantification and delivery mechanisms will vary – depending on the outcome of the negotiations.

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