Is there a single moral foundation of Human Rights?

Fernanda Aranha Hapner, University College London


There are a number of theories trying to find a definition for “human rights”. Authors such as Ronald Dworkin, John Rawls and Joseph Raz have written their different perspectives and nonetheless do not reach a definition to cover all human rights practice since the end of World War II. This article, compiled with the ideas of George Letsas, suggests four main groups of such rights which undeniably exist: a) Constitutional human rights; b) International legally binding human rights (eg. international treaties and custom); c) Human rights which are written and binding in the United Nations non-judicial system of human rights (eg. UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and administrative bodies entitled to supervise and sanction the practice); d) Human rights which are not written nor legally binding (eg. moral right not to be tortured). Dworkin sets a theory with a high threshold as a moral foundation and role of human rights: the one of internal legitimacy of State depending on its correct practice of human rights. John Rawls theory, in summary, explains that states must meet some minimal standards to guarantee not being invaded by other states and complying with Human Rights represents a threshold for guaranteeing their sovereignty. Rawls also enumerates those rights. Joseph Raz´ theory reaches a complex combination of elements, in which human rights are a subset of moral rights, those whose violation can justify a wide range of international responses against the perpetrating state. Although Letsas concludes that it is a satisfactory answer to recognize that there are different normative roles of human rights and not only one moral foundation, there could be an alternative answer. This article postulates that there exists a second option: a combined view of the natural law principles with Dworkin’s interpretivist theory. A dialectic between the rules of human rights recognized until now, limited and oriented by a value (eg. dignity).

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