Rowan Cruft – The Individualism of Human Rights

Political Theory Research Group seminar series: 10 Feb 2016

Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Photo: Photo: Unknown - Franklin D Roosevelt Library website

Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Photo: Unknown – Franklin D Roosevelt Library website

Rowan Cruft’s paper “The Individualism of Human Rights” explores the thesis that human rights are justified by what they do for individuals, rather than for collectives like ‘humankind’ or ideals like ‘beauty’. This means that a human right is always grounded in a feature of the individual right-holder (such as an interest, need, freedom, or capability). Rowan offers ‘the right to political participation’ as an example – the importance of your freedom of political participation is enough to ground the right, aside from any wider benefits of political participation to society or political institutions.

Further, he points out that if human rights are individualistically grounded in this way, then the way we understand ‘the individual’ has important consequences for our understanding of the relationship between moral and legal rights. He provides considerations for and against two possible views: the ‘specific individual approach’ focused on a particular, idiosyncratic person, or the ‘standardized individual approach’ capturing the features of a generic human.

The seminar discussion was enthusiastic and engaged. The question of what’s at stake in this problem was raised, as well as what its boundaries are – for example, can we understand small groups as rights-bearers on this account? Distinguishing individual interests from the common good when determining a right’s grounding proved challenging for some, who worried they may not be easily separable. Further, some participants wondered whether when we talk about ‘human rights’ we just do mean ‘rights of individuals qua humans’, and so the ‘specific’ account must be tracking something else – possibly the problem of accounting for people with idiosyncratic interests. Rowan described the paper as a work in progress and we look forward to seeing it develop.

Written by Christina Dineen


Rowan Cruft is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Stirling.