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Book Chapter

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Human rights sound a lot like moral rights: rights that we have because we are human. Many philosophers think it follows that the list of international human rights must therefore be founded on some philosophical account of moral rights or of human dignity. More recently, other philosophers have rejected this foundationalist picture of international human rights (“foundationalist” meaning that moral rights are the foundation of international human rights). These critics argue that international human rights need no philosophical foundation; instead, we should look to the actual practices of human rights: the practices of international institutions, tribunals, NGOs, monitors, and activists. I call this approach “human rights pragmatism.” It is pragmatism in that it puts practice rather than theory in the driver’s seat, and denies the need for theoretical foundations for international legal human rights.

In “Why International Legal Human Rights?” Allen Buchanan offers a forceful pragmatist critique of foundationalism, which he calls the “Mirroring View”: that international legal human rights must mirror moral rights. Buchanan demonstrates that there are reasons for establishing a regime of international legal human rights that have nothing to do with the Mirroring View. My paper is a response to Buchanan’s. I agree with Buchanan’s pragmatist critique of foundationalism, but I argue that without some connection between international legal human rights and moral rights grounded in human dignity, a regime of international legal human rights will fail on its own terms. The paper explores what that connection is, and explains why focusing on human dignity is essential on pragmatist, anti-foundationalist grounds.

Publication Citation

David Luban, Human Rights Pragmatism and Human Dignity, in PHILOSOPHICAL FOUNDATIONS OF HUMAN RIGHTS, (Massimo Renzo, Rowan Cruft, & Matthew Liao, eds., Oxford University Press forthcoming)