Rdhumanrights - Minimalism About Human Rights The Most We Can Hope For?1 Joshua Cohen MIT 1 Hope At the conclusion of his illuminating book on

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Minimalism About Human Rights: The Most We Can Hope For? 1 Joshua Cohen, MIT 1. Hope At the conclusion of his illuminating book on Human Rights , Michael Ignatieff says that “we could do more than we do to stop unmerited suffering and gross physical cruelty.” Efforts to halt such suffering and cruelty are, he says, the “elemental priority of all human rights activism: to stop torture, beatings, killings, rape, and assault to improve, as best we can, the security of ordinary people.” 2 Ignatieff describes this focused concern on protecting bodily security as a minimalist outlook on human rights. And he distinguishes human rights minimalism from more expansive statements about the content of human rights and more ambitious agendas for their promotion. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights presents one such more ambitious agenda. Its account of human rights extends well beyond minimalist assurances of bodily security, to comprise rights associated with the rule of law, education, culture, work, and political participation. And neither of the 1966 Covenants on human rights (which entered into force in 1976) is a minimalist charter—certainly not the Covenant on Economic and Social Rights, but equally not the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, with its provisions on self-determination, political participation, equality before the law, and rights of peaceable assembly. In response to the criticism that minimalism is simply a 1 I presented earlier versions of this paper at the 50 th Anniversary celebration of the MIT Center for International Studies, and the Center for Ethics and the Professions at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. I am grateful for comments from Charles Beitz, Patrizia Nanz, and Alyssa Bernstein. 2 Human Rights , p. 173.
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Human Rights—2 of 29 political strategy—and not an especially plausible one—for defusing authoritarian objections to human rights by reminding authoritarians that they do not have to do very much, Ignatieff denies that minimalism is strategic. Instead, it is, he says, “the most we can hope for.” 3 In the Critique of Pure Reason , Kant says that the three great philosophical questions are: “What can I know?,” “What ought I to do?,” and “What may I hope?” The first question expresses the interests of our reason in its theoretical use; the second question expresses the interests of our reason in its practical use. The third joins the interests of both: given the demands of morality and what we know about how the world does and might work, what sort of world, we ask, is it reasonable to hope for, and to strive to achieve? The world that the minimalist imagines—a world without torture and with genuine assurances of bodily security for all—is no small hope, and I do not wish here to dispute Ignatieff’s assertion about elemental priorities—about the relative importance of rights of bodily security. But I do wish to dispute the idea that human rights
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This note was uploaded on 01/16/2012 for the course POLITICAL 17.000J / taught by Professor Cohen,scanlon,sen during the Spring '03 term at MIT.

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Rdhumanrights - Minimalism About Human Rights The Most We Can Hope For?1 Joshua Cohen MIT 1 Hope At the conclusion of his illuminating book on

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