Is Human Rights the Only Moral Language We Need?

The year-long campaign in the run-up to the 70th anniversary of the passing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 10th December 2018 was launched this January. The Declaration, which proclaims the inalienable rights associated with the status of being a human being, marked a milestone in history and, exceptionally, continues to ensure mass support across a broad political spectrum.

Since 1948, and particularly since the end of the Cold War, human rights have become a common and powerful language (Jochnick, 1999, 56). In this time, the political commitment to human rights has grown, expressed in numerous charters and declarations, including the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights. And yet, 70 years on, human rights are violated the world over, not least because of enduring and pervasive poverty.

Utilitarian thinkers such as Bentham considered the idea of universal human rights to be “rhetorical nonsense” (in Mendus, 1995, 10).  For Bentham, this was explicitly because this idea is not grounded in a view of universal human nature or an injunction to promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Implicitly, however, the utilitarians could have objected to human rights because their view is founded on a right-wing ideology of ‘possessive individualism’ (Mendus, 1995, 12).

Interestingly, human rights have also been critiqued from the perspective of the political left. For Marx, rights are not inalienable and intrinsic human possessions, but emerge as a product of capitalist societies and function as a device to lubricate capital and sustain bourgeois control over it (1977 in Hargaden, 2013, 1). As such, it would be against the very nature of human rights to challenge political and economic assemblages of power. Whilst International Labour Organization (ILO) legislation has been in place since 1930, preventing forced labour in supply chains, there is still a focus on corporations regulating their own supply chains. The UN Commission on Transnational Corporations is a comprehensive code of practice for TNCs, but, after 20 years of drafting, it has never been adopted in human rights provisions (Jochnick, 1999, 67). In avoiding confrontation with political and economic realms, human rights can be used uncritically as a Trojan horse for a diversity of political objectives.

Because of this, human rights can, at worst, function as a convenient tool for virtue-signalling, i.e. the opportunistic cloaking of any number of actions under a shroud of virtue. The UK government regularly appropriates human rights when endorsing repressive immigration rules (Davidson, 2010), which, in practice, may compound the vulnerability of groups predisposed to modern slavery. A small number of governments even claim exceptionalism towards substantial portions of the Universal Declaration. American foreign policy for example recurrently appeals to universal human values in the pursuit of violent acts overseas that contravene international legislation (Donnelly, 2007, 282).

The focus on the individual also has the effect of framing humanitarian campaigns within a bodily prism of victimhood. This means that funding becomes tethered to sentimental and uncomplicated dichotomies of good and bad, victim and criminal, whereby human rights are imagined as a gift to be bestowed.  This provokes campaigners to position their cause as most deserving, usually involving oversimplifying narratives of rescue and persecution which contribute to the continuation of paternalistic discourses. This obscures political contextuality and negates the plight of individuals whose reality cannot be accommodated within dominant paradigms of human rights violations. Ultimately, the absence of agency in this framework leads to a form of moral blindness that is polarising, uncritically equating the good with the victimised. Recent history, most notably the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, teaches us the dangers that this dichotomy presents.

70 years on from the signing of the Universal Declaration, we live in a world where the predominant moral language is that of human rights. Albeit empowering, the language of human rights may inhibit critical confrontation with ethical, social and cultural issues since, by its very nature, it does not challenge political and economic assemblages of power. This explains the exceptionalism of human rights in that it ensures mass support from a broad political spectrum. Substantiative change, in a way that avoids further polarisation, requires our moral language to be more receptive to paradigms which are not restricted to formalistic civil liberties.

To this end, perhaps it would be valuable to assess the relative usefulness of moral paradigms which have a different focal point to human rights. Could a moral language grounded in conceptions of virtues and vices capture real-world situations better than a language of human rights – because the former is derived from everyday discourses that seem to transcend cultural and historical boundaries, whereas the latter are formalistic human constructions which obscure a person’s social and material conditions? Alternatively, perhaps a moral language which forefronts a duty to challenge political and economic assemblages of power if they diminish the liberty of an individual would be more powerful than human rights which forefronts human vulnerability and is by nature inclusive. These are some of the interesting political and historical questions that the Jubilee Centre’s virtue research could help to answer.

Charlotte Rennie is Research Officer at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues



Davidson, J.C. (2010) New slavery, old binaries: human trafficking and the borders of ‘freedom’. Global Networks, 10:2, 244- 261

Donnelly, J. (2007) The relative universality of human rights. Human rights quarterly, 29:2, 281-306.

Hargaden, K. (2013) The Trouble with Rights, The Other Journal, 22: 4 [Online] Available at: [Accessed: 05/01/2018].

Jochnick, C. (1999) Confronting the impunity of non-state actors: new fields for the promotion of human rights. Human Rights Quarterly, 21:1, 56-79.

Mendus, S. (1995) Human rights in political theory. Political Studies, 43:1, 10-24.

Van Genugten, W. and Perez-Bustillo, C., (2001) The poverty of rights: human rights and the eradication of poverty. Zed Books.



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