Brandeis University, Philosophy Department
Fall 2011
Brandeis University Web Stite


International Global Studies
Philosophy and Legal Studies
Peace and Conflict Studies

Professor Andreas Teuber
Andreas Teuber

"The Future of Human Rights"


PART ONE: Michael Ignatieff begins his Tanner Lectures on "Human Rights" movingly:

In If This Is a Man, Primo Levi describes being interviewed by Dr. Pannwitz, chief of the chemical department at Auschwitz.1 Securing a place in the department was a matter of life or death: if Levi could convince Pannwitz that he was a competent chemist, he might be spared the gas chamber. As Levi stood on one side of the doctor's desk, in his concentration camp uniform, Dr. Pannwitz stared up at him.

Levi later remembered: "That look was not one between two men; and if I had known how completely to explain the nature of that look, which came as if across the glass window of an aquarium between two beings who live in different worlds, I would also have explained the essence of the great insanity of the Third [Reich]."

Ignatieff continues . . .

Here was a scientist, trained in the traditions of European rational inquiry, turning a meeting between two human beings into an encounter between different species . . . we make progress to the degree that we act upon the moral intuition that Dr. Pannwitz was wrong: our species is one and each of the individuals who compose it is entitled to equal moral consideration.

Human rights is the language that systematically embodies this intuition, and to the degree that this intuition gains influence over the conduct of individuals and states, we can say that we are making moral progress . . . We think of the global diffusion of this idea as progress for two reasons: because if we live by it, we treat more human beings as we would wish to be treated ourselves and in so doing help to reduce the amount of unmerited cruelty and suffering in the world.

1. Human Rights in the Twenty-First Century

But today, at this moment in human history, are we succeeding or failing in our efforts to cultivate and guarantee the protection of international human rights? In "Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry," Michael Ignatieff suggests that a case might be made for both. Depending on where you look or what you choose to emphasize, human rights promotion and protection may appear to be succeeding and failing simultaneously. Indeed, Ignatieff sees the international human rights movement as at a "cross-roads" and in a mid-life crisis. See Ignatieff's Tanner Lectures on "Human Rights: Politics and Idolatry".

2. A "Minimalist" Approach to Human Rights

Ignatieff's concerns are several, but can be easily identified and highlighted. He is concerned about the proliferation of human rights' claims. Too many rights make it difficult to gain international consensus. So, too, he believes, the purpose of human rights should not be any particular conception of the good life or even of social justice, but simply protection from cruelty and degradation. He advocates a "minimalist" approach and recommends that a human rights regime to be effective at all ought to seek the protection only of negative freedoms. As he says, "human rights can command universal assent only as a decidedly 'thin' theory of what is right, a definition of the minimum conditions for any kind of life at all."

He notes that "people from different cultures may continue to disagree about what is good, but nevertheless agree about what is insufferably, unarguably wrong." But, as others have noted, there is "slippage" within even this fairly straightforward position. Given Ignatieff's view, you might think "torture" would be one of those things that everybody would agree was "insufferably, unarguably wrong," completely "out of bounds," "off the table," as it were, but if the documents released after the Abu Ghraib Prison Abuse Scandal in Iraq and the reports from Guantanamo Bay are any indication, there is less than universal assent even here.

So, too, although a minimalist approach to human rights advocacy may have much to recommend it, such an approach is out of keeping with the North/South world divide. The North, Europe and the United States, for examples, tend to put civil and political rights first, to see them as somehow basic; whereas many developing nations in Asia and Africa, see social and economic rights as fundamental, believing that they, that these rights, ought to be respected and honored before others.

3. "Negative" and/or "Positive" Rights?

Henry Shue in his Basic Rights disagrees. As he says: "The prospect of this book is to present the reasons why the most fundamental core of the so-called '[social and] economic rights,' which I shall call subsistence rights, ought to be among those that receive priority."

Shue quotes Secretary of State Cyrus Vance approvingly: "There is the right to the fulfillment of such vital needs as food, shelter, health care, and education . . . there is the right to enjoy civil and political liberties . . . Our policy is to promote all these rights . . . that with work all these rights can become complementary and mutually reinforcing." (April 30, 1977).

What do you think? Whose side are you on?

Ignatieff's or Shue's?

Do you think a minimalist approach is the way to proceed or is a more inclusive approach, one that gives equal emphasis and weight to both "negative" and "positive" rights the way to go?

If so, why? On what grounds?

And depending whether you side with Shue or Ignatieff, what might the other raise by way of objections and how might you best respond to those objections?


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