A theory of state justice: Human rights as the basis of political legitimacy

Craig Titus, Purdue University


Though human rights now feature prominently in 21st century political and moral discourse around the globe, the actual meaning of human rights—and the perception of their value—remains questionable. This dissertation makes a series of claims which constitute a reconfiguration of the concept of human rights. This new model has important implications for the political concepts of legitimacy, obligation, and authority. In chapter two, I show that much of the confusion about human rights can be seen in a study of the deliberations leading to the United Nations` Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). During this process, the drafters of the UDHR came to recognize that universal human rights were not be found in the contemplataion of Nature (or of the supernatural); a new basis would have to be found. In chapter three I explore the major criticisms that have been levied against human rights since the appearance of the UDHR. These are namely that the language in the UDHR has left unclear whether human rights ought to be seen as legal rights or whether they are strictly moral rights. As moral rights, they lack a coherent philosophical justification and therefore lack a clear claim to true universality. These criticisms are significant, although resolvable. More damaging, though, is the idea that individual rights have been shown to be irrelevant under any broadly Marxist ideology. In chapter four I present a reconfiguration of human rights, one that describes human rights for what they are (guidelines for political behavior at the level of government) and I argue that this is how we ought to see them. Human rights were never intended—after a brief non-starter period at the beginning of the UN drafting process—to be a systematic moral theory. They are practical guidelines for what the peoples and cultures around the world think are the best ways for governments to treat their citizens. In chapter five I review the original arguments for the purpose of government. These claim that governments come into existence by way of freely-entered-into contracts among people who recognize the need of a power greater than themselves that can provide for their most basic needs. Governments that act on this mandate are said to be legitimate in their role as a government. When governments are legitimate, their authority is said to be justified and their citizens are obligated to obey the laws of the land. In the final chapter I argue that since governments have as their primary responsibility the duty to establish adequate protections and guarantees to, at the least, the most basic set of criteria that people need in order to realize a sustainable human lifestyle, they can do no better than to see the list of human rights as the best representation of this criteria. In other words, my central claim is that what governments are obligated to do is ensure the protection of human rights. When done sufficiently, this earns a government legitimacy and justifies its authority, which in turn creates political obligation for its citizens.




McBride, Purdue University.

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