4.2.4 Human Rights as a Moral Standard

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 rules have emerged from different discourses, but they don’t necessarily conflict with each other in the behaviour that they recommend.

Human rights are another alternative discourse.  They are a codification of behavioural standards which have been agreed by negotiation, for the protection of every individual in society – protections perceived as necessary to avoid conflict and oppression.

The legitimacy of human rights is conferred by the negotiation process, not by an appeal to external authority or to philosophical reasoning, and they are expressed in a different kind of language.  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.  People’s attitudes reflect whether they place a higher value on pursuit of the common good, or on individual liberty and responsibility.  No one would suggest that an individual should have no rights, but there is room for discussion on what those rights should be:

1.  Their scope is contested (

2.  Agreement is needed on their enforcement (

3.  The most contentious question is what level of socio-economic rights should be guaranteed to people, to let them flourish (

4.  There are differing views on how to establish human rights (

5.  There are strong arguments for State-provision of many socio-economic rights (, although it would always need to be supplemented by private charity.

6.  There are counter-arguments, for private provision of charity as an alternative to the State (, but private charity cannot be the only solution.

The answers to the first three questions depend partly upon the answer to the fourth question: how rights are negotiated.  The definitions, quantification and delivery mechanisms of human rights will vary – depending on the outcome of the negotiations.



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This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/424.htm