chapter  5
29 Pages

The Foundations of Human Rights

Living as we do in an era when human rights play such a fundamental role in politics, it’s easy to ignore questions about the foundation of these rights. Questions about human rights policy or legal decisions rarely discuss the philosophical grounds for their positions. Yet human rights have not yet reached the status of unquestionable truths, but rather must continually overcome skepticism (such as from cultural relativists, international “realists,” and others). Further, human rights need to be interpreted by people who use them-whether in law, advocacy, or policy-and interpretation requires an understanding of the source of our ideas. As such, questions about the foundations of human rights are far from academic, and need to be returned to continually so that our belief in human rights does not grow “dull and torpid,” as John Stewart Mill feared was the fate of opinions too easily taken for granted.1 With this in mind, I turn to the philosophical debate over the foundations of human rights.