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Rejects need as the foundation of human rights

Group Discussion Day 1



Donnelly argues against human needs as the foundation of human rights.  Using his arguments from the book (esp. pp. 13-19) and class discussion as your guide:





  1. Explain why he rejects need as the foundation of human rights;

  • needs are hard to define beyond empirical needs
  • Maslow hierarchy of human rights: cant go beyond basic human rights
  • “Human rights’ are ‘needed’ not for life but for a life of dignity, a life worthy of a human being.”
  • Science doesn’t tell us what we are, or what we make ourselves to be
  • Humans can transform themselves, we can struggle and change, need cannot capture the social stuff, as you go beyond food and water it gets too controversial
  • Need to discover what we can do, we need space to discover


  1. Explain his alternative basis, his understanding of the “moral nature” of human beings;

Capabilists-13-14 not something we need but something that has been developed, humans have a moral nature

  • Human needs are a form of surviving but then develop into moral nature (pick either human needs or moral nature or can pick both but have to back it up with information)
  • “There is a human rights to x “implies that people who enjoy a right to x will live richer and more fully human lives- a notion that goes beyond developing or realizing their “capabilities.” Conversely, those unable to enjoy human rights will to that extent not merely see their capabilities diminished, they will be estranged from their moral nature,”
  • “Human rights set the limits and requirements of social (especially state) action, but that action, guided by human rights, plays a major role in realizing that “nature”. When human rights claims bring legal and political practice into the line with their demands, they create the type of person posited in the underlying mroal vision.”


  1. Evaluate his argument by supporting it or criticising it.  If you want to criticise his position, give one reason that he does not consider in


    of human needs as the foundation of human rights.  If you want to support it, give a further reason in


    of his conception of the moral nature of human beings as the foundation of human rights.

  • To be able to live you do not need human rights, you need it for human dignity
  • Have physical and rational needs
  1. Finally, as part of spelling out your answer, show how it can respond to one counter-consideration.
  • Social constructs
  • “’Human nature’ is a social project rather than a pre-social given.”
  • “Human rights theories and documents point beyond actual conditions of existence-beyond the “real” in the sense of what has already been realized- to the possible, which is viewed as a deeper human moral reality. Human rights are less about the way people are than about what they might become. They are about moral rather than natural or juridical persons.”


-We all have DNA but it was what we make ourselves to be

-all human needs can transform into other needs.

-we are built in the same environment and the same way but it what we discover this is the authors argument you can either reject or accept it

-we are self-created beings but we



Human Rights and Global Justice Lecture Two:  Donnelley, pp. 1-75

-noted in the introductory lecture that we will read Donnelley as an exponent of what I call the ‘standard view’ of human rights, that view that predominates amongst Western state and NGO officials, human rights lawyers, and at the UN-  sees human rights as outgrowth of liberal natural rights, which were first asserted in the liberal revolutions of seventeenth and eighteenth centuries-  key difference-  fully universalised, held by every human in virtue of being human, not, as in the case of natural rights, in virtue of being a citizen of a constitutional state

– today, examine what Donnelley takes to be the basic meaning of rights, how this informs the idea of human rights, and what he takes to be the foundation, the scope, and the political implications of human rights to be-  as we work through his arguments I will note points of tension between his claims and the claims of theorists we will read later in the term- will only note the tension, save detailed examination until we turn to the thinker involved

I:  Rights as Trumps

Donelley follows the American political philosopher Ronald Dworkin in treating rights as ‘trumps’-  just as a trump card takes the trick in card games, so rights override other considerations when it comes to the treatment of people-  when one exercises one’s rights, one in effect plays a trump card that carries the day against any power opposed to your accessing the good, or exercising the capacity, or protecting the value, to which the right pertains-  if I have a right to free speech, and you try to prevent me from publishing my views because you disagree politically with them, then I can play my right against your opposition to expose it as illegitimate and publish my views-  if I have a right to free assembly and the police try to prevent my organizing a demonstration, then in exercising my right I trump the arbitrary nature of the police power and organise the demonstration-  that rights are trumps does not mean that they can never be overridden (in an extreme emergency rights may be suspended in all constitutional societies), but it does mean that other things being equal rights override considerations of political power and social convention-  they carve out a space for legitimate individual action which, in normal circumstances, neither the state nor other individuals, acting alone or as a group, may interfere with

“Rights … rule-governed interaction … obligations.” (p.8)

-holding a right means that one is being treated as an agent,  an active subject, as opposed to the passive object of charity or largesse-  as an object of charity, one might be provided with needed goods, or allowed to speak, but one has no legitimate entitlement to these goods- whether one eats or speaks is a matter for one’s superiors to decide; when basic necessities and free speech are matter of right, in contrast, everyone is entitled to them regardless of social class or status-  rights mark out their bearers as equals–  if I have a right, then all others have a duty to respect my rights, whether they have more money and social status than I, regardless of our respective races, genders, sexualities,  range of ability, or ethnicity- rights are thus the ground of equal respect between concretely different people sharing a political space

-the difference between human rights and national-citizenship rights from which they historically and philosophically derive is that human rights are fully universal:  they pertain to all human beings (not members of this or that state)  in virtue of being human (and not any more particular characteristic) in a global (and not national)  political space (there is no political space in which they may be legitimately ignored or violated)-  as Donnelley notes, human rights have become, since the passage of the Universal Declaration in 1948, a global standard of political legitimacy, the bedrock of global justice- no state or society in which human rights are violated can be socially just (but what more, if anything, is required for global justice remains for us, at this point, an open question)-  Donnelley’s point is that human rights are more than just moral principles, (not just ‘manifesto rights, as Joel Feinberg once said) they are tools of political change-  they seek to transform those societies in which they are systematically, regularly, violated-

-but while it is true that human rights have become a basic standard of political legitimacy, it is also true that their enforcement remains hostage to considerations of the national interests of the most powerful states-  the wild inconsistencies in the enforcement of human rights standards depending upon the connection between the offending regime and the most powerful nation-states (the five permanent members of the Security Council) raises, in the minds of some critics, questions as to whether human rights really are a universal global standard, or just ideological cover for major power interests-  we will return to discuss this problem when we read Teeple

– Donnelley thus regards human rights as tools of concrete political change, but they are also, obviously, moral principles-  and that raises the question of what there foundations are-  what is their basis in reality which allows them to command respect and motivate action-  if they were pure fictions then they would not command respect and they would not motivate change- thus, there must be some basis in human nature, some reason why human beings are respectable, if we are to be able to explain why human rights command the support that they do-  Donnelley considers two alternatives:  a)  needs and capabilities (often associated with the work of Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen, but, as we will see, also essential, although in a way different from Nussbaum and Sen, to the life-value perspective), b) moral vision of human possibilities- let us treat each in turn

  1. a) for some unargued reason Donnelley believes that the understanding of human needs is the province of empirical science, and once we depart empirical science, needs becomes a matter of ‘philosophical theory’ that gives rise to endless disputes “Without grounding … set of human rights.” – this unduly privileges biological over social and cultural needs and ignores the history of political struggle—what people have actually fought for—as guide to the set of socially and politically relevant human needs- (for a contrasting view, see the essay by McMurtry on the Blackboard site and Noonan, Materialist Ethics and Life-Value, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012).-  as for capabilities, he is correct to argue that these are outcomes and not grounds, that is, they are the valuable things we are able to do if the material conditions of action (needs)  are met-  so I think he is correct to reject capabilities as a foundation for human rights, but his arguments against needs I find less convincing
  2. b) his own preference is for what he calls a ‘constructivist’ view- by ‘constructivist’ he does not mean arbitrarily put together from culturally relative materials, but a vision of what it is possible for human beings to do if they are treated in the ways in which human rights mandate- thus, the ground of human rights is a vision of human potential to live as equal, free agents- “human rights are a) the minimum set of goods …. No more.  But no less.”(p. 17).  – but that sounds to me a lot like saying human rights secure access to the things (resources, institutions, relationships)  we need   if we are to fulfill our potential-  if he had a more adequate conception of needs, he might arrive at that conclusion himself-  I leave it to you to work through the problem

II:  The Universal Declaration Model

-while Donnelley is clearly making a philosophical argument in defence of a politically specific interpretation of human rights rooted in definite (and contested) assumptions about human nature, he strives to avoid merely theoretical controversy where possible by anchoring his claims in legally recognised human rights-  in answer to the question:  what is the content of human rights, he points to the three core documents that have the force of international law:  the Universal Declaration, and the Covenants on Political and Civil and Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (links to all three are included in a footnote to the first lecture-  you should familiarize yourselves with the content of all three)-  that these three documents have been agreed to by almost all the world’s nations is material proof, to Donnelley, of their concrete universality- i.e., they are not platitudes but political realities that all nations have an obligation to live up to-  they define, in our terms, the basic content of global social justice (although, whether the minimum thus defined is itself adequate is a problem to be debated throughout the course-

Donnelley argues that the Universal Declaration model has 5 defining features: 1) it is rooted in a conception of human dignity that undermines the legitimacy of all class and status hierarchies-  even though for most of its history ‘dignity’ was reserved for various sorts of nobility, as the distinguishing mark that conferred superior status, in the modern world (largely owing to the work of Immanuel Kant) it is now treated as a universal feature of human nature—dignity is that unpriceable quality in human beings that commands respect—our capacity to live as autonomous agents,  to determine our own goals in life “human dignity … simply being human … by this dignity”  (p.29), 2) it provides a mechanism for institutionalizing the conditions for respecting human dignity, i.e., by enforcing the rights listed and agreed to, states take the necessary steps to ensure human dignity respected and human potential realizable; 3) human rights as individual rights, claimed against central authorities or organized social forces, not group rights-  the one exception (to which we will return when we look at Mutua) is the right to self-determination of peoples-  but this is not a right to oppress minorities in the name of cultural preservation or integrity, it is a right to be free from colonial domination, made necessary by the historically specific circumstances of European colonialism, 4) all human rights are interdependent and indivisible, that is, they are not a “menu”  from which states may select as they please, a commitment to human rights means a commitment to respecting them all, and 5) individual national states are made responsible for enforcement, not international agencies or NGO’s-  state responsibility necessary to gain signatures to the documents (states not in habit of giving up sovereignty), but also weak link-  states do in fact pick and choose the rights they respect (and the rights they decide to criticise others for not respecting)-  to this extent the enforcement of human rights remains hostage to political realities, both national and international

III: Economic and Social Rights

-nevertheless, the strength of the Universal Declaration model is that it is anchored in achieved political and legal realities, i.e., not mere platitudes but real international documents that most states have agreed to uphold- helps us to understand the controversial status of economic and social rights- economic and social rights are asserted in the later articles of the UD and in International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights-  thought of in general,  economic and social rights are claims on access to goods and institutions that shape the material standard of living and define the character of work-  from the right, their status as human rights is often contested (Donnelley examines the arguments of Cranston, pp.40-42) on the ground that they are not properly universal (pertain to workers, not to human beings)  and that they cannot be realized, because there is no agent with a specifically corresponding duty to uphold the right-  who has the duty to ensure the right to work?  What if economic conditions make it impossible?  Sometimes the problem with economic and social rights is said to be that they are “positive”  rights (rights to some particular good or service- while real rights are “negative (right to not be interfered with in the enjoyment of one’s liberty)-  if only negative rights are real, then positive rights would always violate someone else’s right, because in requiring the redistribution of property, some share must be taken (by the state)  from one ground and redistributed to another, and that interferes with the liberty of those who are taxed-  from the left, economic and social rights are also controversial, not because the left regards them as not real rights, but because leftists (like Teeple) believe that they cannot be realised under capitalist social and economic conditions-  in reality, therefore, they are not about securing to each the full set of means of dignified life, but with supplying just enough to supress working class militancy, if anything at all (return to the argument when we turn to Teeple)-  Donnelley believes that both right and left arguments are mistaken, because they treat as a sharp theoretical distinction (economic rights on the one hand and political and civil rights on the other)-  in reality, economies are always shaped by political and civil rights, and the degree to which political and civil rights can be exercised is shaped by the economic means citizens have available-  in other words, both sets of rights fully interpenetrate, one set cannot be realised at the expense of a=the other set-  they are indivisible, as are all human rights-  the same sort of argument pertains to the positive and negative distinction-  as Henry Shue has proven, not right is merely negative, all require investment of public monies for their support and protection-  in practice, therefore, neither distinction holds:  (p.43)   “Our lives …. spheres… central social realities.” (p.45)

-from a different angel, communitarian and anti-colonialist critics of the UN model (like Lughod and Mutua respectively)  complain that the problem with human rights is the abstract nature of the individual who is the rights bearer-  for these critics the individual rights bearer is abstracted from cultural and historical and environmental context-  the rights bearer is a fiction, since everyone has a cultural identity, a location in history, and is dependent upon a life-sustaining natural environment-  by being individual rights, human rights fail to protect the collective bases of individual life and freedom-  again, we will return to the details of the critique when we get to the appropriate authors-  here, let us focus on Donnelley’s response-  Donnelly strongly defends the individualist nature of human rights, because he regards individuals as the reality of societies   and cultures-  the collective symbolic structures that define cultures are borne by individuals, some of whom may be harmed in their dignity by certain traditional practices)  hence individuals need protection from culture as much as they need protection from the state-   but human rights are nevertheless strong protections for multicultural societies, because of their emphasis on non-discrimination- if minorities are protected as individual members of minority groups, and if members of minority groups are protected against oppressive practices internal to those groups (through right to exit)  then culturally diverse and just arrangements are most likely-  only those cultures will thrive which do not oppress their own members, because only such cultures as gain the voluntary assent of members will be able to reproduce themselves-  “The general approach …are protected.” (p.46)

-there is one exception that Donnelley allows:  the right of people’s to self-determination-  this right must be understood narrowly, in the context of the struggle against European colonialism-  it is not a licence to oppress intern minorities, but to free a nation for a history of domination by an external power-  while this right clearly must be collective, it is not clear that Donnelley’s refusal to entertain group rights for internal minorities (like the Quebecois)  is sound-  it might be the case that without laws like the French language Charter, which are coercive in one respect, French would slowly die out, given the vast English culture of North America in which Quebec is enmeshed-  very difficult problem to sort out what justice demands in these cases-  will return to the problem when we read Mutua

IV: Equal Concern and Respect

the ‘standard interpretation’ as I have been calling Donnelley’s views, is ‘standard’ not only because it is rooted in the history of liberal constitutionalism (which dominates the politics of the Western world, the centre of world power) but also because, since 1948, human rights as individual entitlements to equal treatment and respect have become ‘settled norms’ a sort of ‘political common sense’ that few would challenge in principle (some of the few, we will examine over the course of term)- while for most of human history people were ranked in classes, castes, and status groups of purported greater or lesser perfection, today, at least publically, almost everyone professes the equal dignity of all individual human beings, regardless of concrete ethnic, racial, sexual, gender identity or sexuality or range of ability- all these differences are underlines by a shared humanity, which grounds dignity, which grounds the demand for equal concern and respect-  essential to the liberal project- liberalism a diversity of views, emerged in seventeenth century England to explain and justify struggle against absolute monarchical power (classic text is John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government)- the point for our purposes is:  human rights internationalises the liberal value of equal respect for individual’s capacity to determine their own lives-  not everyone who agrees to this principle need agree to it for classically liberal reasons (i.e., because they believe ‘all people are born free and equal’)  when it comes to human rights, there is a growing ‘overlapping consensus’ (John Rawls) i..e, of different groups who have different politics and different ultimate beliefs about reality but who all, for their own reasons, accept human rights as common standards for all nations to pursue (sometimes people sign on the human rights agenda for no other reason than to keep other countries out of their affairs)-  but the main point is–  human rights, in the standard interpretation, are expressions of the liberal value of individual equality- “equal liberty for all …. Heart of any liberal …. others.” (p.65) – makes them settled norms, because liberalism is the dominant ideology of the major capitalist nations, but also, as we will see later in the term, targets for criticisms that are not easily dismissed (whether ultimately right or wrong)

-next day, continue with our investigation of the standard interpretation


Human Rights and Global Justice:  Lecture 2:  Donnelley


-for my discussion of the historical development of human rights, see the introductory lecture posted on Jan. 7th

–  the history that Donnelley discusses demonstrates beyond all doubt that human rights have a historically specific point of origin—the natural rights that were used to legitimate the liberal revolutions of the 17th (England)  and 18th (America and France) revolutions- specific set of problems generated common solutions (claims of right rooted in claims of equality)- those problems—state and market power over individual lives—have since become common across the globe, creating the conditions for the universalization of human rights as solution to these common problems-

still, one might ask:   if human rights have a historically, socially, and culturally specific point of origin, how can they also be universal?  To answer that question, we need to reflect upon what we mean by “universal”-  in philosophy we can distinguish between abstract universals (generic definitions that abstract from particularities of time, place, modification—“red”  as opposed to “red can,” “the red shirt I bought you for Christmas last year”  or “dark red”)-  human rights are clearly not universals of this sort-  if that were the only meaning of “universal”  then human rights would not be universal-  but there is another meaning of universal-  Donnelley uses the unfortunately and unnecessarily paradoxical “relative universal”  – a better choice would be “concrete universal” – a concrete universal is the product of the synthesis of an abstract form with specific, concrete properties-  “the red can”  combines in a unique thing the universal property “red” with a concrete, real thing—the can that is red-  human rights are concretely universal-  they combine abstract principles (“all human beings”  and not “Canadians, or males, or heterosexuals…”) with particular and definite assertions of what these beings have rights to (free speech, democratic government, education, etc…)-  they are not merely particular assertions of merely particular political perspectives, but assert genuinely universal, human interests, that have emerged from a history that was initially marked by radical difference of social structure and political form, but have become more and more common over time-  even though they have a definite historical origin, changes in historical dynamics have enabled them to become concretely universal-  “Human rights … substantial political endorsement.”  (p. 75)

-Donnelley’s explanation of the ways in which human rights are concretely universal is better than the term he uses to explain it-   3 senses in which human rights are concretely universal:

1)  legally-  despite their specific origin in time and political space, human rights have been accepted and agreed to (by treaty)  by the overwhelming majority of the world’s countries-  that states often violate their agreements does not mean that the principles they have agreed to are not actually agreed to-  therefore, universal, even if sometimes ignored in practice-  that states are criticized by social justice movements for failing to enforce in practice the human rights they have agreed to adds further evidence for their legal universality

2)- overlapping consensus  recall Rawls—overlapping consensus is agreement with political principles for different reasons by adherents of different comprehensive philosophical  doctrines-  agreement on human rights crosses left-right divides and draws together representatives of movements which may not agree or may focus on specific aspects of oppression (women’s groups, anti-poverty groups, food justice, etc)- their struggles against existing structures of power and wealth enable the development of human rights laws to address more and more particular issues (“law lies at the intersection of justice and power”)  (p. 96)


3)  Functional Universality-  as the threats posed to human dignity by markets and states have become shared across differences of culture, so have human rights come to be recognized as effective remedy for those threats across cultures-  “Human rights respond … proven effective means.” (97)  the question is:  what have they proven effective at doing—ameliorating effects, or addressing causes-  true that they are functionally universal in that they have worked in widely different situations, but what it is they have worked at- effects or causes-  remains questionable (will consider the counterarguments later in the course)

These are the ways in which human rights have become concretely universal-  they are not universal in five ways:  ontologically (they are not parts of the fabric of physical reality, but moral-legal principles enacted in a definite time and social-political space); 2) historically, they have not been present across human history, but date from the 17th century conception of natural rights; 3) foundationally, they are not universal either, but can be derived from different political-philosophical arguments and assumptions about human nature; 4) in terms of specification, the number of recognized human rights grows and changes in response to struggles for social justice; and 5) in terms of enjoyment, they are not equally enforced across the globe, with some group of people enjoying far more human rights in practice than  others


-Universality in a World of Particulars (Ch. 7)

-that human rights are concretely universal, realized in particular cultures in different ways, does not mean that they are relativistic standards-  relativity is a fact of human history; relativism is a particular philosophical doctrine that draws general conclusions for the fact of particularity-  namely, that there are no cross-cultural (universal) standards, but every culture determines for itself the moral principles etc., it will obey-    not products of Western culture if we mean that they are standards applicable only to the West-  they emerged first in Europe, but have become truly universal, in the ways specified above-  not every society historically evolved in the direction of human rights, but human rights are amenable to realization in many different cultures (a proven fact today)-  none absolutely are or are not amenable to human rights, depends upon how the members of that society interpret their cultural values-  (107)-  not necessarily culturally imperialist to argue against certain practices on grounds that they violate human rights, according to Donnelley, but he is clear that such arguments are most effective when they are championed by local forces—(112)

-to believe that human rights are reducible in terms of their political value to the political and social context of their emergence—i.e., to argue that because they emerged in the West they can only ever be culturally imperialist when applied outside the West, is to commit, Donnelley argues, the genetic fallacy- the false belief that where something comes from determines its meaning, its value, its implications-  important claim, to which we will return when we examine Mutua’s work especially- that is not to say that they cannot be used imperialistically or to extend Western hegemony-  but the best way to guard against that possibility, to re-iterate, is not to abandon human rights, but to use them to empower local groups who have an insider understanding of the culture  (the implication being, for Donnelley, if members of the culture employ human rights to criticise aspects of their own culture, they cannot be acting as agents of Western imperialism)  “universalism without imperialism”  is his goal (117)



provide an example of a falsifiable statement or theory in economics and discuss why this specific statement is scientific according to Popper by identifying its potential falsifiers and explaining the importance of these.

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