Are human rights natural or conventional? That is, does one possess human rights in virtue of being a member of the human race, or, do these rights only come into existence only once they have been written in by some sovereign body? This question was at the heart of Michael Boylan’s St. Cross Seminar, ‘Natural Human Rights’, given on Thursday 27th November (spoiler alert, he sides with the former in both cases!). The seminar explored the central argument in Boylan’s recently published book, Natural Human Rights: A Theory. In it, he argues that one can “bridge the fact/value chasm to create binding positive duties that recognize fundamental human rights claims.” Boylan covered a lot of material during his talk, and so in what follows I shall focus on the positive arguments made in order to get a feel for the substantial element of the seminar. You can find a recording of the talk here.
After rejecting a legal justification of human rights (instantiated by what I took to be a legal positivist position and then a contractarian approach) and an interest-based account of human rights, Boylan takes up a position centred upon agency. In his book, Boylan considers Amartya Sen & Martha Nussbaum’s capabilities approach and Alan Gewirth’s minimal agency theory, but finds both accounts wanting. Instead, he begins with what he calls the ‘Personal World View Imperative’ (PWVI hereafter). This imperative states that all people must develop a single comprehensive and internally coherent worldview of the good, which they can then strive to act in accord with during their daily lives.
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.