The ethical terrain of international human rights: from invoking dignity to practicing recognition

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It is now commonplace to declare that we live in an age of rights. Indeed, it is fair to say that the global popularity of human rights has reached the point where, as Alan Gewirth phrases it, many people regard them as fundamental to the “civilizing and moralizing of human life.” However, while no topic arguably is as vital to international ethics, questions remain about what our rights are, who is entitled to claim certain rights, and how these rights should be implemented and enforced. The purpose of this chapter is to provide a guide to the intricate relations between the institutional development of international human rights, the central ethical principles offered to support human rights norms, and the politics of human rights. To this end, I draw inspiration from recent attempts to understand the making of rights claims as performative social and political practices. On this understanding, I propose that, for us to attend properly to the political significance of claiming rights, we should approach human rights and dignity as the achievements of generative struggles for recognition. In the first section, I offer a brief account of the translation of the idea of human rights into international legal norms and political institutions, focusing on the International Bill of Human Rights. In the middle section, I bring analytical attention to bear upon the ethical underpinnings of international human rights, characterized in terms of the four pillars of dignity, liberty, equality, and solidarity. Finally, I offer some reflections on the ways by which rights claims are positioned, in performative terms, as emergent political struggles to achieve reciprocal recognition, equal status, and human dignity.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationRoutledge Handbook of Ethics and International Relations
EditorsBrent J. Steele, Eric Heinze
PublisherRoutledge Taylor & Francis Group
ISBN (Electronic)9781315725932
ISBN (Print)9781138840201
Publication statusPublished - 2 Jul 2018


  • Human rights
  • Dignity
  • Equality
  • Performativity


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