On Human Rights

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Overview


What is a human right? How can we tell whether a proposed human right really is one? How do we establish the content of particular human rights, and how do we resolve conflicts between them? These are pressing questions for philosophers, political theorists, jurisprudents, international lawyers, and activists. James Griffin offers answers in his compelling new investigation of the foundations of human rights.

First, On Human Rights traces the idea of a natural right from its origin in the late Middle Ages, when the rights were seen as deriving from natural laws, through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when the original theological background was progressively dropped and 'natural law' emptied of most of its original meaning. By the end of the Enlightenment, the term "human rights" (droits de l'homme) appeared, marking the purge of the theological background. But the Enlightenment, in putting nothing in its place, left us with an unsatisfactory, incomplete idea of a human right.

Griffin shows how the language of human rights has become debased. There are scarcely any accepted criteria, either in the academic or the public sphere, for correct use of the term. He takes on the task of showing the way towards a determinate concept of human rights, based on their relation to the human status that we all share. He works from certain paradigm cases, such as freedom of expression and freedom of worship, to more disputed cases such as welfare rights--for instance the idea of a human right to health. His goal is a substantive account of human rights--an account with enough content to tell us whether proposed rights really are rights. Griffin emphasizes the practical as well as theoretical urgency of this goal: as the United Nations recognized in 1948 with its Universal Declaration, the idea of human rights has considerable power to improve the lot of humanity around the world.

We can't do without the idea of human rights, and we need to get clear about it. It is our job now--the job of this book--to influence and develop the unsettled discourse of human rights so as to complete the incomplete idea.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"thoughtful, interesting, informative, often illuminating." --Social Theory and Practice

"This book is a masterpiece ...it will be studied for a long time to come."--Brad Hooker, Oxford Journal of Legal Studies

"James Griffin's new book is a singular contribution to the philosophy of human rights. In it he defends his own well-thought-out account with great subtlety and ingenuity, but the exposition of his account and the discussion of the important issues are so nicely structured and so clear and well-informed that the book could clearly be used as a text in an undergraduate course. At the same time, Griffin's exposition of his view is so subtle and nuanced and the arguments so careful and cogent that the book is an essential work for specialists in the field... his book shows that philosophers have an important contribution to make to the conceptual and moral issues that are at the heart of much ongoing discourse on the nature and content of human rights."--William J. Talbott, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

"Arguably the most significant philosophical meditation on human rights...[since] the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.... Not only the most powerful, fully elaborated contemporary philosophical contribution to the topic, but also one that has put in place many of the foundations on which any future work should build."--John Tasioulas, Ethics

"A fresh and timely look at the whole field of human rights. Griffin adroitly picks his way through this judicial and moral minefield in which a person's perception of a 'human right' can be condemned as a crime by someone of a different political or religious background."--Patricia Allen, Northern Echo

"James Griffin modestly sees his book as an early contribution to a theoretical critique of modern interpretations of rights, but it is more significant than that. Academic, intellectually demanding, clearly written and rigorously thought through. This is not a polemic but an important work of scholarly philosophy, one that may lead to a fundamental reappraisal of something that impinges ever more closely upon us. It is also one of those books that make philosophy matter."--Alan Judd, The Spectator

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780199573103
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 10/25/2009
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 360
  • Sales rank: 978,064
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

James Griffin is White's Professor of Moral Philosophy Emeritus at the University of Oxford; Visiting Professor of Philosophy at Rutgers University; and Adjunct Professor at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, Canberra.

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Table of Contents

Introduction
Part I: An Account of Human Rights
I. Human Rights: The Incomplete Idea
II. First Steps in An Account of Human Rights
III. When Human Rights Conflict
IV. Whose Rights?
V. My Rights: But Whose Duties?
VI. The Metaphysics of Human Rights
VII. The Relativity and Ethnocentricity of Human Rights
Part II: Highest Level Human Rights
VIII. Autonomy
IX. Liberty
X. Welfare
Part III: Applications
XI. Discrepanices Between the Best Philosophical Account of Human Rights and the International Law of Human Rights
XII. A Right to Life, A Right to Death
XIII. Privacy
XIV. Do Human Rights Require Democracy?
XV. Group Rights

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