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  • Philosophy of Human Rights: Theory and Practice
  • Morton Winston (bio)
David Boersema , Philosophy of Human Rights: Theory and Practice (Boulder CO: Westview Press, 2011), 426 pages, ISBN: 978-0-8133-4492-8, plus Index.

Intended as a stand-alone and "student-friendly" primer on the contemporary theory and practice of human rights, Boersema's text attempts to combine the virtues of a single-authored book with those of an anthology of readings. Having used many books of this kind in my teaching and having edited a similar book, I found Boersema's approach to be engaging and refreshing. His writing is readable without sacrificing theoretical precision and philosophical depth. The short selections from notable authorities featured in each chapter are judiciously chosen and well-edited, and the overall organization of the book covers many of the main issues found in a typical undergraduate course on the philosophy of human rights.

The book is organized into three sections: the first deals with the theory of human rights; the second discusses practical applications of human rights discourse and analyses of several specific rights; and the third reprints selected historical documents. Each chapter contains a clearly written commentary by the author, short selections from other authors, questions for classroom discussion, and suggestions for further reading. The organization of the book into thirteen chapters makes it ideal for use in a standard semester-long introductory class on human rights.

The theoretical framework for rights that Boersema employs describes "having a right" as shorthand for the following formal schema or relation:

S has a right to x against o in virtue of j.

Where s stands for the right-holder, a moral or legal agent, which can be either a human individual or a collective agent such as a corporation or government; x is the content and the scope of the right; o are the addressees or duty-bearers of the correlative obligations; and j stands for the moral or legal justification(s) of the claim that there is such a right. Rights function to regulate the behavior of moral or legal agents towards one another by providing right-holders with liberties, powers, claims, and immunities of various kinds. These protections and empowerments ground moral or legal duties that other moral or legal agents have towards the right-holders.1

This formal definition of rights is further elucidated by means of several of the leading accounts of how specifically human rights are to be understood: Joseph Raz's view that rights protect fundamental interests, Joel Feinberg's rights as claims, [End Page 292] Ronald Dworkin's rights as trumps, and Martha Nussbaum's account of rights as protecting the capabilities necessary for the flourishing and well-being of human agents. In each case, short edited selections by influential authors are inserted into the main narrative that provides the context of the selection so that students can gain skill in reading primary sources.

This pattern is repeated in subsequent chapters in which Boersema explores theoretical controversies concerning the justification of human rights by contrasting J.S. Mill's utilitarianism, Gilbert Harman's moral relativism, John Hospers' libertarianism, and Alan Dershowitz's view that rights are legal responses to past wrongs. There is also a nice debate between Henry Shue and Tibor Machan on the distinction between negative and positive rights, as well as point-counterpoint discussions of group rights and animal rights by leading authors such as Carol Gould, Tom Regan, and Carl Cohen. A chapter on skeptical critiques of human rights features selections from the writings of Alasdair MacIntyre, Douglas Husak, Elizabeth Wolgast, and Radha D'Souza.

Part II turns the discussion towards more practical issues about how rights are used and understood in the context of contemporary social and political debates. Chapter six has a particularly nice discussion of liberalism versus communitarianism and the overuse of "rights-talk" compared to the dearth of "responsibility-talk" in modern American political discourse, featuring selections from Mary Anne Glendon and Samuel Walker. Chapter six shifts to the global perspective, discussing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in relation to the issue of cultural relativism and featuring contributions by Manwoo Lee, Fernando Tesón, and Abdullahi...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1085-794X
Print ISSN
0275-0392
Pages
pp. 292-293
Launched on MUSE
2012-02-24
Open Access
No
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