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The Honor of Human Rights: Environmental Rights and the Duty of Intergenerational Promise


The idea of human rights either as a moral system or as a set of legal practices does not sit well with the concept of honor. This is true for both ontological reasons and because of some reprehensible misuses of the term in constructs such as “honor killings.” Yet the absence of honor as an argument for human rights comes with a high cost in the defense of human rights generally. As Hobbes made clear in his early theory, rights—and dignity—are grounded in the human capacity to make promises and in the necessity of honoring them. In his view then, honor is an essential feature of human rights and one closely linked to the human capacity for dignity. In this article, I explore how environmental human rights place a renewed emphasis on honor as a requirement for the protection of the rights of future generations. In the process, I explore the general relationship between honor, dignity, and human rights.

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  1. See Sessions (2010), pp. 4–6, for a discussion of several reasons for human rights advocates to approach the concept of honor being aware of its “dark side.” For an interesting discussion of the masculine/feminine dichotomies inherent in the historic meaning of honor, including in Kant, see Mika La Vaque-Manty (2006).

  2. Habermas (2012), p. 8. For a defense of the relevance of honor within the historical development of Liberalism, see Sharon R. Krause (2002).

  3. Ibid.

  4. For Habermas (2012, p. 9), the notion of dignity invoked today by human rights defenders resembles “social honor” but distributed equally to every member of society, “through membership in an organized community in space and time.” Similarly, Jack Donnelly (2014) and Jeremy Waldron (2012) argue that human rights universalize the attribution of dignity to every human being. Habermas adds the communitarian requirement and also, in the same piece, the idea of constitutionalism as a necessary component of the transformation of restricted honor to universal dignity.

  5. See Appiah (2010) for a rare (within contemporary philosophy) and wide ranging philosophical inquiry into the moral status of “honor codes.”

  6. See for example Donnelly (2014), Hiskes (2015), Kateb (2011), Rosen (2012), and Waldron (2015).

  7. Pico, della Mirandola, Giovanni (1486; 1998), On the Dignity of Man, Indianapolis, In: Hackett.

  8. Rosen (2012, p. 15).

  9. See Rachel Bayefsky (2013) for a wide-ranging reinterpretation of Kant’s use of dignity and honor and their relationship to individual autonomy and social duty.

  10. But see Karen Zivi, in for a warning about the “normalizing” power at play in adopting society’s definition of what public promises mean and why they are important.

  11. See Hiskes (1999).

  12. Quoted in Hiskes (2009, p. 3).

  13. In addition to Donnelly and Waldron (no. 4), see Rosen (2012) and Kateb (2011).


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Correspondence to Richard P. Hiskes.

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Some portions of this article appeared in the Introduction to “Human Dignity and the Promise of Human Rights” (2015), Open Society Foundations.

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Hiskes, R.P. The Honor of Human Rights: Environmental Rights and the Duty of Intergenerational Promise. Hum Rights Rev 17, 463–478 (2016).

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  • Future Generation
  • Social Contract
  • Human Dignity
  • Moral Code
  • Environmental Harm