This afternoon I moderated a panel for Emory philosophy’s colloquium series. The panel’s theme was this: Foundations for Human Rights: philosophical, legal, political, or superfluous?
Our fabulous panelists:
- Karin Ryan, director of the human rights program at the Carter Center http://www.cartercenter.org/news/experts/karin_ryan.html
- Michael Perry, Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Law at Emory Law School http://www.law.emory.edu/faculty/faculty-profiles/michael-j-perry.html
- And Andrew Altman, distinguished university professor of philosophy at Georgia State University http://www2.gsu.edu/~wwwphi/9560.html
The panelists each gave a short presentation and then there was a lively Q & A.
No one on the panel argued for any kind of metaphysical foundation for human rights and all pointed to the importance of a human rights culture and discourse. Andrew Altman’s main point was that we don’t need a logical proof for the existence of human rights; we can simply refer to the stories, sentiments, and reasons we share with each other for why a human rights culture makes the world less horrible than it might otherwise be. Michael Perry pointed to the major premise of the UN ‘s declaration of human rights that “all human beings … should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood” as the compelling (but not metaphysical) foundation for human rights, and only foundational because actual human beings are largely motivated by this imperative. Karin Ryan of the Carter Center spoke about the actual communities that have used the language of human rights to change their communities. Her many examples buttressed my own thinking about the performative character of human rights and other political claims — e.g., how human rights claims are made in situations when such rights are being denied but how the claims themselves actually instantiate the rights. For a woman to speak out publicly in a culture that says she can’t — and when she does so because a human rights discourse says she can — actually instantiates her right to speak in the face of those who say she can’t.
The audience of, primarily, philosophy professors and graduate students seemed unsatisfied by any of this, and I found this a bit perplexing. The questions seemed to be looking for logical loopholes. Actually, I can’t even really figure out what the questioners were questioning. Maybe some could clarify in comments here.
One interesting question noted that the panelists all seemed to be suggesting that “human rights” were created in 1945. That is, human rights are a cultural construct and they were actually constructed with the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. This questioner wondered then what about reparation claims for wrongs conducted prior to 1945. Well, that’s an interesting question! My reply to that would be that it is not rights that were created in 1945 but a way of talking about rights that was created. So we can be agnostic about the existence of such rights pre- and post 1945.
Anyway, this was a really interesting session and another example of why I love to do this work.