Journal of Applied Philosophy has published online the paper Amartya Sen presented as the Society for Applied Philosophy Annual Lecture in Oxford on 14 June 2011:
You can also listen to a discussion between Amartya Sen and Jeremy Waldron on Sen’s lecture here.
We live in a world in which the idea of human rights is persistently invoked. However, despite the tremendous appeal of the idea of human rights, it is also seen by many as lacking in foundation. I have argued, particularly in my book The Idea of Justice, that human rights are best seen as articulations of commitments in social ethics, comparable to — but very different from — accepting utilitarian reasoning. Like other ethical tenets, human rights can, of course, be disputed, but the claim is that they will survive open and informed scrutiny.
This view contrasts with seeing human rights in primarily legal terms, either as consequences of humane legislation, or as precursors of legal rights, or as pointing towards what should ideally be legal rights. Human rights may well be reflected in legislation, may inspire legislation, and may even serve, in many circumstances, as ideals that demand legislative attention. However, these are ‘further facts’— not the defining characteristics of human rights.
A claim of human right is only a claim, and unlike a legal right that is backed by a law that everyone within the system is meant to accept, there is no corresponding presumption of monism in interpretation. The usefulness of human rights lies in the dialogic contribution of the idea of human rights, and for that a human rights claim has to be plausible to others, when public reasoning is allowed, but there is no necessity that everyone must always agree to the same view of the exact specification of human rights. There will be, the hope is, enough agreement in many cases to generate agreed actions based on human rights, including perhaps freedom from torture, freedom from starvation, freedom from dying without medical care from illnesses for which cures are known, and so on, and the reach of such consensus could be enormously important. But even when no full agreement emerges, the art of reasoning based on the concept of human rights, including the freedoms and obligations involved, is itself, I would argue, a contribution to a better world, basically in the line of what Walter Bagehot and John Stuart Mill saw as ‘government by discussion’.