Basic interests

Is global agreement on the content of human rights possible? Must not every such attempt fail in the face of the diversity of worldviews? According to reasonable pluralism (Rawls 1993, 58ff), human rights interests would have to be so general that people with very different ideas about what is a good life would be able to agree on them. In the philosophical literature, we can find three methods of determining the content of at least basic human rights.

First, we can directly look and see if we will find reasoned agreement on basic interests. These would have to concern preconditions for, or fundamental elements of, a successful life. It is not directly a good life that is at stake here, but merely a humane life with dignity. Now, it seems plausible to presuppose interests of any human regarding goods such as prevention of premature death, physical and mental integrity, worthwhile opportunities for experience and agency, attachment to significant others such as parents and those beloved, or recognition by equals.

This is not meant to rule out the possibility that persons might make reasoned decisions against some such interests. People are plainly capable of making all manner of sacrifices—even their own life—out of conviction. But they can only do this rationally if they believe that it is supported by a value of at least equal importance. If a person simply throws his or her life away on a whim, we consider that grossly irrational and tend to regard the person as a pathological case. In that sense, interests that are significant in terms of human rights are at least prima facie interests: other things being equal, they deserve universal esteem (for details, see Gert 1998). Some are even more than prima facie interests. They affect indispensable preconditions of the ability to orientate and to be a self-aware person. Satisfying such interests is good without further qualification. Otherwise, persons would be unable to lead a personal life at all.

Second, a similar sort of argument-call it “quasi-transcendentalist”—has been presented by Henry Shue (1996), but with regard to necessary enabling conditions for realizing any human right. According to Shue, some rights are basic in the sense that enjoying them is indispensable for the enjoyment of all other rights. Consequently, if a right is truly basic, abandoning it would be literally self-defeating from the point of view of human rights as such. Shue considers rights to physical security, to subsistence, and to some liberties to be basic in that sense.

Third, one can determine the content of basic human rights by asking what is essential for being able to participate as a free and equal person in human rights discourses. This route of argument has something in common with Shue’s. But instead of directly identifying some rights as basic, it refers to the intersubjectivist “construction” of any system of rights (Forst 1999). Given that rights are always in need of moral arguments, and arguments are intersubjective in and by themselves, the ability to participate in human rights discourses as a free and equal person becomes crucial. We can understand that as a reflexive turn in the very idea of equal concern and respect: the basic principle out of which specific human rights normatively emerge has to be reformulated as a discourse principle (Habermas 1998, 107). This is not a purely formalist idea. We can gain some material content by realizing that without certain endowments we would be unable to participate effectively in the common construction of a sufficiently rich and determinate system of rights.

Now, instead of taking the three approaches as mutually exclusive, we prefer to see them as mutually supportive. A right that turns out to be basic in the sense of protecting and promoting interests necessary for leading one’s own life as a self-aware person, for the very same reason will turn out to be necessary for consciously and effectively exercising all other rights. What is more, the approach of basic interests highlights the advantages that rights are made to protect and promote. It directs our attention to the relation between subjective rights and intrinsic goods.25 The approach of basic rights, in contrast, can help us to determine the normative status some interests have. It gives further support to claims regarding basic interests by explaining their role in any coherent system of rights.

Regarding the third approach, basic interests and basic rights can serve as substantial restrictions within human rights discourses. They focus the participant’s attention on the points of greatest urgency. To a large degree rights that are indispensable for participating effectively in human rights discourses will overlap with those needed for leading a personal life with dignity and also with those needed for enjoying any other sorts of rights. Nevertheless, it is highly likely that some rights turn out to be basic although not securing necessary conditions of discursive engagement; we may think of interests in physical integrity, in freedom from serious pain, or from forced marriages.

So much about the content of basic human rights. For the reasons just indicated, we are confident that at least some interests can be shown to be of universal importance. Being able to satisfy them is a necessary condition for, or elementary component of, a humane life with dignity, including the status of being the holder of valid claims and a free and equal coauthor of some specific systems of rights.

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