CC 325 B - Human Rights: Politics, Ethics, Law

3-4 Credits
MWF 3:05-3:55 pm - Professor Western

Today, when pursuing questions of moral, social and political significance – questions of justice, crime, respect, obligation, what we owe others and what we are entitled to – we find ourselves answering with appeals to individual rights. Indeed, rights have become in many ways the basic blocks out of which today’s ethical languages, legal systems and even politic structures are built. In this regard, of the notions of rights we hold today, “human rights” – rights that we ascribe to all human beings exactly because we are human beings – have become, perhaps, the most pervasive and powerful.

Because human rights are so central to contemporary moral language, for many people it is simply unproblematic that human rights are the very standard of what is good and just in the world. Yet there are controversies and complexities surrounding human rights, and it is exactly because of their centrality that questions of human rights deserve close, critical scrutiny. Are human rights a truly universal concept, or are they essentially modern, Western and secular? Are human rights equally good for all, and agreed to by all? Or do human rights represent another way for Western nations to impose their power and ideas around the world? Are there better ways of thinking about our moral lives than through the lens of human rights? For that matter, what are our “human rights?” Is the list consistent or do certain rights conflict with others? How do we secure human rights? Through law? Violence? Whose violence? Whose law? Given that we need political and legal institutions to protect human rights, what complications, comprises and battles arise when human rights turn political?

In the first part of this seminar we will explore the historic, philosophical and theological foundations of human rights, critically investigating the moral power and universal character usually claimed on their behalf. In the second part of the seminar we will explore human rights in action, considering case studies and thinking critically about the interplay between ethics, politics and law.

A course about ideas, action and the intertwining of the two, this seminar combines, and should be of interest to students who enjoy, history of ideas, moral philosophy and legal and political theory and analysis.