Conscience, morality and judgment: An inquiry into the subjective basis of human rights

Philosophy and Social Criticism 34 (1-2):177-195 (2008)
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This paper is an exploration of the role of conscience in the justification of human rights. I argue that in both the western tradition of natural rights and the non-western traditions, human rights are justified, in part, because of their appeal to conscience, and not simply because they issue from a divine source or are based on reason. In contrast, contemporary justifications of human rights primarily look for an objective foundation or simply assert the pragmatic importance of human rights as their justification. While there are distinct advantages to this way of arguing, there are also problems, which I will discuss. As an alternative, I outline Arendt's understanding of conscience as the ability to be with and think with one's self as a secular alternative to both a non-secular version of conscience, and the denial of conscience implicit in contemporary theories. Her view of political judgment helps us to understand how conscience can be understood as subjective but not arbitrary. This paper brings Arendt's insights on conscience and judgment to bear on contemporary discourses of human rights



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Serena Parekh
Northeastern University