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'Simply in Virtue of Being Human': the Whos and Whys of Human Rights

by John Gardner

In this paper I raise some questions about the familiar claim, recently reiterated by James Griffin, that human rights are rights that humans have 'simply in virtue of being human'. I ask, in particular, how we are to read the words 'simply in virtue of'. Are we speaking of who has the rights (A has them if and only if he or she is human) or why they have the rights (A has them because and only because he or she is human)? Griffin brings the two readings together, as two sides of the same coin. He offers a (more or less) universalistic case for (more or less) universalistic rights. I try to show how the two readings can be driven apart, how the universality of human rights need not be undermined merely by there being no adequate universalistic case for them. On the strength of this discussion I suggest an inversion of the relationship that is often thought to hold between human rights and human dignity. In a way our rights give us our dignity, not vice versa. And in a way this helps to make the case for the universality of human rights.

ISSN 1559-3061
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