A World Without Human Rights?

Adam Seligman and David Montgomery wrote an article entitled “The Tragedy of Human Rights” in which they argue that the choice to make human rights “the primary vehicle through which we articulate our shared moral vison” excludes “other components of human good and fulfilment” and in particular stifles “any sense of shared belonging”. Since the latter is part of the human soul that cannot be repressed, the need for belonging has re-emerged in contemporary political debate and, in the hands of extreme right-wing parties and leaders, has become the instrument to implement policies of exclusion that end up destroying the values of freedom, equality and non-discrimination that human rights intend to affirm. To get out of this impasse, the two authors propose to recognize the value of differences by adopting a political strategy “that takes collective differences as not simply matters of individual preference but as a constitutive of individuals and their communities”.

These arguments touch on some central issues of contemporary philosophical and political debate, from the role of law in the development of civil society to the interaction between the universality of rights and the particularities of cultural and religious affiliations. The relationship between the rights due to the individual and those that must be recognized to groups (primarily minorities) and the conflict between rights and policies of freedom on the one hand and equality on the other are further questions that are raised by the Seligman-Montgomery article.

No one can miss how topical these issues are and how important for the future of liberal democracies. Populist and nationalist movements have understood that globalisation has not erased but rather accentuated the need for roots, tradition, belonging and have used this need to challenge policies of rights based on equality and inclusion. On the one hand there is growing regret for (and the desire to rebuild) boundaries that include and exclude, warm the hearts of those inside but leave those outside in the cold. On the other hand, one wonders where this desire to rediscover the value of differences can lead. Won’t it end up justifying the new walls that are rising up everywhere, making us forget that each person is part of the same human family and disavowing rights (laboriously) recognized to each individual precisely on the basis of this universal belonging?

Is it really impossible to reconcile the universality of rights and the specificity of belonging? In order to answer this question, ResetDOC invited some philosophers and legal experts to discuss Seligman and Montgomery’s criticism of human rights and their proposal to rebuild civil society starting from an appreciation of differences.

The article “The Tragedy of Human Rights”, originally published in Society (Springer) magazine, is reproduced here. In the coming days and weeks, it will be followed by comments by a number of renowned fellow scholars from different countries. A comprehensive response by the two authors to this debate will complete next month this special Dossier.

(Silvio Ferrari)