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  • Inherent Human Rights: Philosophical Roots of the Universal Declaration by Johannes Morsink
  • James W. Nickel (bio)
Johannes Morsink , Inherent Human Rights: Philosophical Roots of the Universal Declaration, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 2009), 319 pages, ISBN 978-0-8122-4162.

Johannes Morsink has written an impassioned defense of viewing today's human rights as direct descendents of the Enlightenment conception of natural rights. According to this conception, "human rights are inherent in all human beings who have or possess them from birth."1 It holds that people are born with a protected moral status that is not a human construct and that cannot be taken away. Morsink argues not just that this sort of view was common among the authors of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), but also that we ought to believe it today.

The first two chapters of the book set out Morsink's views on inherent rights [End Page 528] and how people can know them. Chapters three and four switch from metaphysics and epistemology to normative ethics; they explain the shortcomings of the Golden Rule as a basis for human rights and defend Martha Nussbaum's capabilities approach to human rights. Chapter five defends human rights against a charge of "unrealistic utopianism" and chapter six concludes with a defense of democratic participation as a key part of the "organic tapestry of human rights."2

There are several reasons to welcome Morsink's defense of the Enlightenment view of human rights. One is that it will stimulate readers to rethink whether and to what extent they can reclaim such a view for themselves today. Another is that it provides a clear version of a philosophical view that many people hold and that philosophers and political theorists should and surely will continue to teach as one possible account of how human rights exist. Although Morsink does not appeal to religion in explaining or justifying human rights, the idea that human rights are inherent will resonate with religious people who would explain these rights as the result of divine decree, and our knowledge of them as deriving at least partly it being written in our consciences by our creator.

Morsink's first book, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Origins, Drafting, and Intent,3 is an excellent history of the deliberations leading to the drafting of the UDHR. It showed the very large role that the experience of the Holocaust and other horrors of World War II had on the content of the UDHR. Much material from this earlier work reappears in this book. By my lights this material is used excessively and is often distracting. In the middle of discussing "classical moral intuitionism," for example, we suddenly find a substantial section discussing the UDHR drafting debates.4 Morsink's conclusions are not supported by this material. The fact that many of the drafters of the UDHR held a particular human rights philosophy in no way commits us today to that philosophy. Those drafters have no special philosophical authority. We are free to try to find ways of endorsing or criticizing human rights that fit our own worldviews and philosophical commitments.

Although Morsink insists that human rights are inherent, he gives up on the idea that we can specify one or more properties such as agency, rationality, self-consciousness, or experiencing pleasure and pain as the grounds of human rights or the properties on which the normative status supervenes. Morsink has two reasons for giving up on this idea. One is a worry about "essentialism," about committing oneself to some fixed human essence.5 The other is a practical worry: if we say that rights inhere in some feature of humans then people who arguably lack that feature will lack rights.6 I doubt that abandoning the idea that human rights are rooted in the possession of one or more of these characteristics is a good move. If one is going to defend the idea that rights are somehow inherent in all humans one will be better able to do so if one can say something about what it is about humans that makes them worthy [End Page 529] of rights. Surely the fact that...


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