Lena Halldenius
Lund University
History plays an important role in the philosophy of human rights, more so than in philosophical discussions on related concepts, such as justice. History tends to be used in order to make it credible that there is a tradition of rights as a moral idea, or an ethical ideal, that transcends national boundaries. In the example that I investigate in this chapter, this moral idea is tightly spun around the moral dignity of the human person. There has been a shift in conceptions of human rights during the twentieth century, from ‘politics of the state to the morality of the globe’. Rather than figuring in, or as, constitutional principles of the political life of a polity and the relation between a state and its members, the notion of rights has come to serve as the name of a state- and politics-transcending ethical position on the status of the human person, and the relations between human persons. Given that this move from politics of the state to morality of the globe is a recent one, it goes without saying that trying to ground a state-transcending morality of human rights with the help of early modern history is problematic. Still, philosophers of this kind of morality of human rights are prone to claiming, for their accounts, a long-standing human rights tradition that, frankly, is not there, at least not in that form. One example is James Griffin, whose reliance on what he refers to as a historical notion of human rights is the focus of my critical discussion here. Griffin claims that ‘our’ concept of human rights is a product of eighteenth century Enlightenment thought. If ‘our’ concept of human rights is Griffin’s concept, then his claim is false – as I show. I agree, however, that the eighteenth century is a pivotal moment, but if we wish to understand natural rights in eighteenth century thought, we need to grasp the fact that power over others, and the capacity of those who hold that power to also abuse it, was not a contingent concern, or merely part of the extension of a concept defined prior to, or independently of, any such concern. It was built into the concept itself; it was its very point.
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