By Prof. Sharon R. Krause
By Brown University Professor Sharon R. Krause
Why do we have human rights and why are we obligated to respect them? This question provokes a certain amount of anxiety among theorists of human rights today, who worry about the difficulties of justifying human rights in the context of what one commentator has called “a world of difference.”[ii] Whereas philosophers and political theorists once treated human rights as applied universal ideals grounded in comprehensive moral doctrines, today such efforts invariably run up against charges of cultural imperialism.[iii] Yet we cannot entirely avoid the matter of justification in human rights discourse, for we will never be able to agree on difficult questions of application if we cannot articulate why we have human rights and why we are bound to respect them. What we need is an account of the grounds of human rights that can stand firm in our world of difference. Moral sentiment theory—the theory of judgment and deliberation found in the work of a range of eighteenth-century thinkers but articulated most powerfully by David Hume—offers some valuable resources in this regard. It can be developed to suggest a non-foundationalist basis for international human rights today, one that justifies human rights with reference to the faculty of empathy and the fact of interdependence.
Moral sentiment arises through a form of perspective-taking in which we come to experience, through the exercise of sympathetic imagination, the sentiments of those affected by a particular action or other object of evaluation. This generalized standpoint builds on the intersubjective communication of feeling that comes naturally to us as social creatures, via the faculty that Hume called sympathy and that today we typically call empathy. Human beings are so constituted as to resonate with the pleasures and pains of others. This resonance can be obstructed by all kinds of intervening variables—above all, by our personal attachments and our prejudices—but it is a common and pervasive part of human experience.
Moreover, because we are by nature interdependent, we need to coordinate our actions and expectations with those of others. Social coordination would be impossible if all our judgments were based on a narrowly particularistic perspective; we need general standards of right and wrong. As Hume put it, “when we form our judgments of persons, merely from the tendency of their characters to our own benefit, or to that of our friends, we find so many contradictions to our sentiments in society and conversation, and such an uncertainty from the incessant changes of our situation, that we seek some other standard of merit and demerit, which may not admit of so great variation.”[iv] So if empathy makes the communication of sentiments possible, the fact of interdependence provides a motive for making use of empathy to arrive at a generalized standpoint for moral deliberation.
The moral sentiment approach suggests a particular kind of justification for human rights today. It is a non-foundationalist justification in the sense that it does not rest on independent moral principles, mysterious moral entities, or higher powers. It yields one basic right that is fully universal: the right to have one’s concerns count with others, to be recognized as a moral equal whose interests and perspective are owed inclusion in the generalized standpoint of moral sentiment. This right is generated partly through the exercise of empathy, which enables us to identify in others as well as ourselves the desire to have our concerns count and the distinctive pain that comes from not counting. Not many things generalize to all of humanity, but surely these sentiments do. Empathetic identification with them gives us grounds to approve a universal entitlement, or right, to equal consideration.
We can expect all persons to affirm this right to the extent that their capacity for empathy is intact and unobstructed by partiality and prejudice. Yet it is natural for people to feel more powerfully for their nearest and dearest, so why should we expect them to cultivate a capacity for empathy that is free of partiality and prejudice? Hume’s answer, remember, is that ignorance of the sentiments of others, or an overly narrow faculty of empathy, impedes impartial judgment and leads us into contradictions with ourselves and conflict with others. Because we depend on others and must coordinate our actions with them, we need to arrive at general norms of conduct. In order for these norms to foster social coordination reliably, they must answer to common human concerns or be consonant with the shared interests of those who are bound by them. Moreover, in view of our interdependence, social coordination is the necessary condition for the satisfaction of whatever other, more particular interests we may have over time. Consequently, we share a common, overriding interest in the extended empathy that, by generating and sustaining reliable general norms, enables social coordination.
Empathetic identification with the common desire for moral exclusion together with our common need for social coordination thus justify a universal right to moral respect as equal concern. The fundamental human right, then, is the right to equal consideration, the right to have one’s concerns count with others. All human rights derive from this fundamental right. More specific articulations of rights will then be the outcomes of the deliberative practices that embody the principle of equal concern.[v] So there is just one human right that is absolutely universal; the content of other rights is subject to collective deliberation and may vary because the basic right does not in itself determine the full slate of rights that may reasonably be claimed. Being political in this sense, the approach allows for a measure of cultural diversity in the articulation of human rights and therefore insulates itself against charges of cultural imperialism.
Seen through the moral sentiment lens, the process of iterating particular human rights is a political, contestatory process, involving the empathetic but critically informed exchange of sentiments among individuals and groups.[vi] The process calls for some constraints, of course. The basic right to equal concern implies a right to the necessary conditions for the empathetic exchange of sentiments and the exercise of the generalized standpoint itself. These rights will include freedom of speech and expression, freedom of association, and freedom of the press. They will also include rights to a system of governance that is responsive to citizens’ concerns and treats them with equal concern.
Human rights are the products of moral sentiment, but they also help to enrich our faculty of moral sentiment. As more specific rights are articulated and contested in the deliberative processes that instantiate the universal right to moral inclusion, they have the effect of informing us about the sentiments of others, thereby extending the reach of our empathy and enlarging the range of sentiments and experiences that the generalized standpoint includes. We might conceive this dynamic in terms of an upward- and outward-reaching spiral. At the base of the spiral, the exercise of empathy that figures in the justification of the fundamental right to equal respect enables us to identify with the common desire to count with others. This right in turn justifies the deliberative practices through which a host of more specific experiences of suffering and aspiration—and the sentiments they entail—are communicated across persons through articulations of particular political, social, and economic rights. As we learn more and as new circumstances generate new experiences, our faculty of empathy is able to convey to us a range of sentiments that is more highly specified and increasingly comprehensive. The practice of human rights thus serves to refine the empathy that helps to justify human rights. The dynamism of this spiraled relationship helps explain why human rights can change over time and why legitimate variation among specific human rights exists across cultures, even though the idea of human rights implies a core moral universalism.
Human rights seen through the lens of moral sentiment lose their utopian cast and the moralism that so often puts them in competition with self-interest, the dominant motive in international politics. This is not to deny that real conflicts can arise between individual and state interests on one hand, and the obligation to respect human rights on the other. The point is rather that the human rights of others need not confront us as wholly alien to our interests, as mysterious moral phenomena that live in an entirely different register from the interests and other common concerns that animate us—and our states—in international politics. And to the extent that specific human rights are arrived at deliberatively in processes that engage our faculties of reflective feeling rather than derived from independent principles said (by someone) to have authority over us, they will be more likely to generate compliance because they will be rooted more organically in the moral sentiments and common concerns that regularly move us to act. So our theories and practices of human rights ought to attend more carefully to moral sentiment. Over time, the advance of human rights in our world of difference will depend on the empathetic education of human sentiments—and this is only likely to transpire if we first allow ourselves to be educated by the sentiments.
Sharon Krause is a Professor of Political Science at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.
(UN Photo/Pierre Virot)
- Adapted for the Brown Human Rights Report from Sharon Krause, “Moral Sentiment and the Politics of Human Rights” in The Art of Theory, ed. Jason Swadley (October 2010):http://www.artoftheory.com/moral-sentiment-and-the-politics-of-human-rights-sharon-krause/
- Brooke Ackerly, Universal Human Rights in a World of Difference (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).
- See Rainer Forst, “The Basic Right to Justification: Toward a Constructivist Conception of Human Rights,” Constellations 6 (1) (1999), 35.
- David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. L.A. Selby-Bigge (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), 58
- There is an affinity between the moral sentiment approach I pursue here and the view of human rights developed by some proponents of Habermasian discourse ethics. See, for example, Rainer Forst, who argues that all human rights derive from a single fundamental right, the right to justification. (Forst, “The Basic Right to Justification: Toward a Constructivist Conception of Human Rights,” Constellations 6 (1) (1999)). The grounds of the basic right are very different in the two cases, however, as Forst (following Habermas) grounds the right to justification in the pragmatic conditions of communication rather than in moral sentiment
- Seyla Benhabib’s notion of the “democratic iterations” through which universal human rights come to be articulated for particular localities and within distinctive cultures captures this contestatory process in important ways. See Benhabib, Another Cosmopolitanism: Hospitality, Sovereignty, and Democratic Iterations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).