Old Problems, New Possibilities
Edited by David Kinley, Wojciech Sadurski and Kevin Walton
Chapter 9: Autonomy, Identity and Self-knowledge: A New ‘Solution’ to the Liberal-Communitarian ‘Problem’?
The liberal-communitarian debate was a feature of the philosophy of human rights in the 1980s and 1990s. For liberals, the purpose of human rights was to achieve freedom and autonomy for individuals. Communitarians, on the other hand, argued that individuals did not pre-exist the groups of which they were members, and that what was important was therefore to recognize and respect the identity of individuals as members of groups. This philosophical debate as to whether human rights should primarily protect (individual) autonomy or (group) identity was one of the more obvious expressions of the broader conflict between individual and collective rights within human rights theory. In the worlds of both philosophy and of international law, things seem to have moved on since the height of the liberal-communitarian debate. Within philosophy the dichotomy between the liberal and communitarian views has been criticized on numerous grounds, most notably that group membership may facilitate the achievement of individual autonomy and conversely that important identities may include those we freely choose as individuals. Within international law renewed interest in schemes of minority protection in the 1990s has introduced more ‘group rights’ into an international human rights regime which had previously focused on individuals. These minority rights emphasize, in particular, the recognition, respect and protection of minority identity.
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