Human Rights
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Human Rights

Confronting Myths and Misunderstandings

Andrew Fagan

This book offers both an introduction to and a critical analysis of enduring themes and issues in the contemporary theory and practice of human rights. The author argues that the moral authority and practical efficacy of human rights are adversely affected by a range of myths and misunderstandings – from claims regarding the moral status of human rights as an allegedly fully comprehensive moral doctrine to the view that the possession of rights is anti-ethical to recognising the importance of moral duties. The author also examines such issues as the claim that human rights can ultimately only be said to exist as legal phenomena and the claim that nation-states are inherently hostile to the spirit of human rights. Discussion cuts across academic boundaries in an attempt to defend human rights against those who have come to expect too much and those who expect too little from human rights.
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Chapter 1: The basis and scope of human rights

Andrew Fagan


INTRODUCTION Chapter 1 delineates the basis and scope of human rights through the analysis of a misunderstanding. More often assumed than stated, this misunderstanding attributes too much to human rights as a consequence of perceiving the doctrine as a fully comprehensive morality for human life. This misunderstanding serves to blur the important distinction between human rights and social privileges; that is to say goods which are essential to human life and agency and those which may be objects of desire for some but are certainly not constitutive of human agency per se. Misconceiving the basis and the legitimate scope of human rights has, at times, undermined the doctrine’s legitimacy in the eyes of some. The human rights ‘inflationism’ which typically accompanies this misunderstanding is damaging to the doctrine in multiple ways. Thus, it runs the very real risk of trivialising human rights demands by over-extending their scope to cover what are widely considered to be mere social privileges. Similarly, it obscures the all-important issue of desert in the enjoyment of human rights, in so far as privileges are typically understood as entailing some reward process, which is absent from the grounds for possessing a human right. Most importantly of all, it serves to obscure the moral imperative for human rights and the very point of their existence in the first place. This chapter focuses, then, primarily upon the distinction between human rights and social privileges. This entails a return to a consideration of the two foundational questions of human rights:...

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