Human Rights Reconceived: A Defense of Rawls's Law of Peoples

Dissertation, Harvard University (2000)

Alyssa R. Bernstein
Ohio University
How can respect for cultural and religious differences be reconciled with the conviction that everyone has basic human rights that must be secured? Should liberal states require that non-liberal states secure human rights, and can they do so without being intolerant and oppressive? Is there a human right to democracy, and should a liberal hold that all states must become modern liberal democracies and may be pressured to reform their traditional practices and institutions? Do human rights include only the classical liberal civil and political rights, and no economic rights? ;In this dissertation I defend a conception of human rights derived from John Rawls's Political Liberalism, which comprises both Justice as Fairness, the view he presented in A Theory of Justice , and the Law of Peoples, the view he presented in The Law of Peoples . According to this conception, human rights are binding on all societies, and cannot be rejected as peculiarly liberal or politically parochial. Outlaw states that violate them are to be condemned and may in grave cases be subjected to sanctions or intervention. Moreover, human rights include not only basic civil and political rights but also basic economic rights. However, while there may be a human right to live under a procedurally democratic government, it would not be a basic right but a derivative one. ;The conception of human rights that I here defend is a rational reconstruction of Rawls's view. In Chapters 1--3 I argue against the most natural interpretation of The Law of Peoples, defend a different interpretation, and expose and bridge a logical gap in that text. I then develop new responses to objections by Charles Beitz and Thomas Pogge, who hold that liberals who endorse Justice as Fairness must reject the Law of Peoples as insufficiently egalitarian. I also respond to the additional objection that the set of human rights cannot include economic rights. As I show, endorsing Justice as Fairness requires endorsing the Law of Peoples, and public reason can reconcile respect for cultural and religious differences with the conviction that everyone has basic human rights that must be secured.
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