In his most recent book, National Responsibility and Global Justice, David Miller presents an account of human rights grounded on the idea of basic human needs. Miller argues that his account can overcome what he regards as a central problem for human rights theory: the need to provide a ‘non-sectarian’ justification for human rights, one that does not rely on reasons that people from non-liberal societies should find objectionable. The list of human rights that Miller’s account generates is, however, minimal when compared to those found in human rights documents, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights. This article argues that contrary to what Miller claims, his account is ‘sectarian’, since it relies on reasons that some non-liberals should find objectionable given their divergent values. It goes on to question whether ‘sectarianism’, as Miller defines it, is, in any case, a problem for human rights theory. The article concludes that Miller provides us with no reason to abandon commitment to a more extensive list of human rights.
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For a justification of human rights based on actual political agreements see (Beitz 2006). For accounts which claim to find an overlapping consensus amongst various ethical traditions see (Taylor 1999; Walzer 1994). Ironically, Miller rejects these alternative accounts for either being implicitly ‘sectarian’ or for failing to support important human rights (pp. 168–178): two charges I shall make against Miller’s own account.
Beitz, Charles R. 2006. Human rights as a common concern. American Political Science Review 95: 269–282.
Caney, Simon. 2002. Cosmopolitanism and the law of peoples. Journal of Political Philosophy 10: 95–123.
Cohen, Joshua. 2004. Minimalism about human rights: The most we can hope for? Journal of Political Philosophy 12: 190–213.
Finlay, Stephen, and Mark, Schroeder. 2012. Reasons for action: Internal vs. external. The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta. http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2012/entries/reasons-internal-external/.
Griffin, James. 2008. On human rights. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Miller, David. 2007. National responsibility and global justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Rawls, John. 1999. The law of peoples. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Taylor, Charles. 1999. Conditions of an unforced consensus on human rights. In The East Asian challenge for human rights, ed. Joanne R. Bauer, and Daniel A. Bell, 124–144. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Walzer, Michael. 1994. Thick and thin: Moral argument at home and abroad. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.
I owe thanks to G. A. Cohen who helped me develop my response to Miller’s theory of human rights when I was working on my doctoral thesis. I also owe thanks to my former colleagues at the Center for Ethics in Society at Stanford to whom I presented an early draft in 2010. Perceptive comments from the Editor of Res Publica and an anonymous reviewer inspired significant improvements. Finally, I would like to thank David Miller himself for his generous support and encouragement of my work and his ever willingness to engage in debate regarding human rights and other topics of mutual interest.
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Oberman, K. Beyond Sectarianism? On David Miller’s Theory of Human Rights. Res Publica 19, 275–283 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11158-012-9211-5
- David Miller
- Human rights