Rights and Politics

Term: Spring 2010

Subject Code: GPOL

Course Number: 6344

The rhetoric of human rights has become an inescapable part of modern politics, but there is a certain background uneasiness: What precisely are human rights? On what basis do we assert that all humans have these rights? May not the belief in human rights be a kind of useful mythology, as rational (as Alasdair Macintyre suggests) as a belief in unicorns or witches? Might it not be the case that the appeal to human rights imports an essentially religious notion into politics? Or if, as seems plausible, the concept of human rights emerged at a certain time and place in world history, on what basis do we claim that they are universal?What is the force, and what are the limits, of the appeal to human rights? What is the place of this concept in a political theory appropriate to the contemporary world? In this course we trace the development of natural rights doctrines in modern political theory, both through its  proponents (Locke, Rousseau) and its critics (Bentham, Burke, Marx). However, the main focus will be on the place of human rights (and of the notion of a crime against humanity) in political discourse since the Second World War.



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