HISTORY AND PHILOSOPHICAL FOUNDATIONS OF HUMAN RIGHTS
Human rights are discussed everywhere. On any given day, we read news stories about people fighting for human rights around the world; we argue about free speech and religious tolerance; we make claims about what our governments should and should not be allowed to do. Human right is a language we use to express our needs, our goals, and what we see as our entitlements. It provides a way for us to think about tragic events – a lens through which to view and critique our society – and is a set of aspirations that make up the core of liberal ideology. Human rights have become, in Richard Rorty’s words, “a fact of the world.”
But human rights is not just a way of thinking, it is also a set of legal and political doctrines. These doctrines limit government power and shape individual expectations. They privilege certain behaviors and prohibit others. Their structure reflects the particular historical context out of which they evolved, and their contours have stretched and changed with the shifting landscape of global society.
In this introductory lesson, we will define human rights and discuss the evolution of the concept from its modern origins to the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. We will explore how and why the human rights system developed as it did, and encounter some alternative perspectives on what it has meant for various groups of people.
As you read through this lesson, and through the rest of the course, try to think critically about the “story” that it tells. Ask yourself: