Reframing Human Rights II: Genesis and Justification

4th Berlin Roundtables on Transnationality, April 27-May 1, 2006, WZB and Erfurt
In cooperation with the Max Weber Center for Advanced Social and Cultural Studies

Most of us would agree that human rights are not simply a result of theoretical research into the moral truth about human beings. If we follow Richard Rorty’s account of what makes the idea of human rights appealing we are confronted with a bifocal view that is pessimistic and optimistic at the same time. On the one hand, Rorty argues, we should give up the idea that human rights are given as the product of human rationality or some universal principle that is inherent to the mind of all human beings. In his view these principles simply don’t work, they are the product of a rationalist western philosophical tradition that has long lost its grasp on the globalized post-modern world. On the other hand, he holds that scepticism towards universal principles need not entail scepticism towards human rights. On the contrary, by reconstructing the history of human rights not as one of conflicting philosophical truth claims but as one of emotionally grounded beliefs that are deeply rooted in our social, cultural and political practice, we should become more sensitive for what it means to have a strong belief in human dignity.

As philosophers, sociologists or political scientists, we need not take a straightforward anti-universalist stance nor do we have to find Rorty’s ideal of ironical liberalism irresistible. However, the lesson to be learned is about the peculiar validity of human rights: they cannot be deduced all the way down from a primordial set of norms or an overarching notion of truth. Instead, we have to zoom in on the concrete history of human rights and thereby start to blend their genesis and justification.

Thus, if we want to talk about the justification of human rights we also ought to come up with stories that are able to illustrate how they work. Examples for their success and, of course, for their failure are legion in history, literature and religion. What makes human rights a universal project after all is not that they convince us the way logical inferences do but rather like emotions that shape our behaviour to fellow human beings more profoundly than moral imperatives ever would.

The Erfurt Workshop
During our stay in Erfurt we used the challenging and inspiring atmosphere of the Max Weber Kolleg to discuss the complex relation between genesis and justification of human rights. Participants engaged actively in the discussion by drawing from their personal research and scientific experience and by bringing together sociological, theological, political and philosophical expertise.

The conference was accompanied by a public evening lecture:
Ronald Dworkin, New York University
“Taking Human Rights Seriously”