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A Methodological Worry for ‘Top Down’ Accounts of Human Rights

The language of human rights is pervasive both in academic literature and international legal practice. We often take the satisfaction of human rights to be a necessary condition for a state’s legitimacy, and the failure of a state to respect human rights as grounds for international intervention. However, providing an account of the nature of human rights—figuring out what exactly it is for something to be a human right—is quite a difficult task. Here I want to present two problems I’ve been thinking about recently with ‘top down’ approaches to determining the nature of human rights.[1]

A top down approach to determining the nature of human rights is one that begins with a normative principle or framework that has been developed apart from an attempt to defend human rights and then applies that principle or framework to debate about human rights. The methodological worry I have in mind for such accounts is that they will either lack sufficient means for getting started or they will be question begging.[2] The former occurs when nothing about the nature of human rights is presupposed in developing an account, the latter when the opposite is the case. I’ll address each in turn.

Top Down Approaches and Getting Started

In order to see the force of this objection, I think it’s important to stress that we are discussing accounts that are attempting to explain the nature of human rights. This can be separated from the question of what human rights, if any, we possess. It is possible that the best account of the nature of human rights that we can give will lead to the conclusion that we don’t, in fact, possess any.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.