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Human Rights in Sociology and Philosophy


The concept of human rights is among the most popular issues throughout the world in contemporary society today. Such a concept is challenging, and many aspects have still yet to be investigated. According to James Griffin (qtd. in Moka-Mubelo 1), there exists a, “belief that we do not yet have a clear enough idea of what human rights are”. Indeed, human rights could be just seen as some kind of ‘settled norms’ of this or that society (Moka-Mubelo 1), and, as such, become a measurement of political and social justice.

According to David Ingram (qtd. in Moka-Mubelo 2), “human rights designate goals or standards against which we judge shortfalls in basic goods that any fully civilized society ought to provide its citizens.” Consequently, human rights can be characterized as, “essential and fundamental standards of the legitimacy of a social and political order” (Moka-Mubelo 2). Some scholars believe that rights are of a social nature (Churchill 3).

Thus, a social environment is necessary to make use of these rights. An example of a desert island helps explain the necessity of communication (Churchill 3). While a person on a desert island still possesses all human rights, not all of them can be realized due to the absence of society. Thus, the concept of human rights is a complex problem which needs careful and thoughtful investigation.


There are numerous studies that focus on human rights and trying to understand their role in society. An interesting peculiarity of human rights research is that investigators from different fields all treat the issue differently. For example, historians would study the concept of slavery and its connection with notions of present-day freedom (O’Byrne 2), while feminists would focus more on woman-related issues of human rights.

When it comes to the concept of human rights, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the first document to analyze (“Universal Declaration of Human Rights”). It was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948 and has been determining policy of human rights since then. The Declaration consists of guidelines and rules which combine to produce an overall system. In fact, it is a practice of agreed behavior which can be applied to people, communities, and whole countries. The Declaration is important for the world community because it facilitates consolidation of people from more than two hundred countries across the planet.

The previous century brought in many changes, the most obvious being the positive enhancement of technology and science. However, this same ‘progress’ also provoked some ecological problems and the development of new weapons of mass destruction. These changes, in their turn, have had an impact on the social, political, and moral spheres. They have also influenced the relations between countries. The Declaration, therefore, also attempts to prevent, or diffuse, some of these potential problems. It is a tool which, with careful application, is supposed to help avoid conflicts and minimize intolerance between states, in general, and individuals, in particular.

The Declaration is a source of coordinated politics for a society. It includes aspects which can help provide a reliable economy and secure further development. The rights of people, together with duties, are important for society. On the whole, the Declaration is a document which unites the crucial concepts mentioned above, and is aimed at the protection of all people and nations.

Study of Previous Research

Contemporary investigations of human rights share many similarities. However, every individual research study has its own peculiar features. For example, Churchill speaks of the concept of rights and focuses on their social context (Churchill 3). He also highlights the correlative duties which accompany those rights. However, the relationship between duties and rights are not symmetrical (Churchill 5).

He also highlights the objects of rights and individual discretion. Finally, Churchill analyses universalizability of rights which is connected with the concept of equal rights. The issue of universality is emphasized throughout the book. This is caused by increased international activity in the protection of refugees, the spread of United Nations’ initiatives, and active “internationalization of human rights, the need for recognition among the world political leaders, etc. (Churchill 4). It creates the necessity of universal applicability of human rights in different contexts, regardless of the setting.

O’Byrne develops the issue of the violation of human rights. He discusses traditional forms of human rights abuse such as censorship, detention of political prisoners, torture, the death penalty, apartheid, slavery, genocide, and refugees (O’Byrne 11). They touch social, political, and legal spheres. The researcher also singles out emerging forms of human rights abuse. They include poverty, female genital mutilation, forced sterilization, and ecocide (O’Byrne 14).

These forms relate mainly to cultural and economic spheres and violate the rights of welfare, security, personal autonomy, life, reproduction and even existence (O’Byrne 14). Moreover, there are state and non-state human rights issues. State ones include apartheid, slavery, torture, and the death penalty (O’Byrne 16). Non-state issues include caste, ‘new’ slavery, domestic violence and murder (O’Byrne 16).

Harris et al. dedicate their study to the analysis of the European Convention of Human Rights. They provide the overview of the history of the Convention, and its enforcement, focusing on the role of the European Court of Human Rights.(Harris et al. 3). The authors mention two divisions of rights. The first one splits into civil and political rights. The second one includes economic, social and cultural rights (Harris et. al. 5).

Bos and Duwell concentrate on the sustainability of human rights and the moral responsibilities for the future (16). The book reviews the positive moments and problems in modern human rights law, and pays particular attention to the issue of long-term responsibility. The authors provide approaches to sustainability, and they analyze the implications and implementation of human rights law. In the context of long-term responsibility, the focus is on the environmental responsibility as a duty towards future generations (Bos and Duwell 214).

Moka-Mulebo develops the concepts of law and morality in the context of human rights (Moka-Mulebo 51). It is stated that law and morality have a complementary relationship (Moka-Mulebo 79). The author deals with the issues of human rights and dignity, the moral-legal aspects of human rights, their implementation in a civil society, and in the wider regime of cosmopolitan human rights (Moka-Mulebo 169).

Appeal to Authority

The article by Roger Scruton is essentially an appeal to the world community in general, and the United Nation’s Council on Human Rights in particular. The author is surprised by the appointment of countries such as Saudi Arabia, China and Vietnam to the Council (Scruton) as these countries are widely known for their regular violation of human rights. For example, they do not provide the right to freedom of speech, religious beliefs, or conscience (Scruton). He believes this creates a fallacy of the importance of human rights, stemming from the very organization that is supposed to be their primary advocate.

Evaluation of the problem: Nozik vs. Rawhs

Over the course of history, many philosophers have touched upon the concept of human rights. It was not done directly because the notion itself did not exist. Before the movement of human rights, which developed during the Second World War and resulted in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, philosophers discussed the, albeit related, issues of justice (Byrne 43). A Theory of Justice was developed by an American Philosopher, John Rawls (Gensler 229). His ideas can be compared to those of another American philosopher, Robert Nozik, who spoke of justice and goods (Gensler 235).

Rawls acknowledged the necessity of some basic principles of justice which could be used to regulate society (Gensler 229). He hypothesizes about a world where people would not know their place in society because the knowledge limitation insures impartiality: “if we did not know our race, for example, then we could not manipulate the principles to favor our race” (Gensler 229). Hence, the principles of justice can be treated as those that people would accept under similar conditions. Rawls also regards the possible equal liberty principle which is connected with issues such as freedom of religion and freedom of speech (Gensler 229).

Rawls states that, “justice is the first virtue of social institutions” (Gensler 229). He singles out two major principles of justice. The first one proclaims that, “each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive scheme of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for others” (Gensler 232). The second principle is formulated in the following way: “social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all” (Gensler 232). Both principles have notable features. They deal with social values of liberty and opportunity, and are, in fact, predecessors of human rights concepts.

Nozick provides an explanation of particular relations of people and their property, and speaks of the justice of distribution. He acknowledges the legitimate means of goods distribution and analyses historical and structural principles of justice and distribution (Gensler 235). Nozick also notes the instability of egalitarian distributions (Gensler 238). Finally, the conclusion is made that in the conditions of a socialist society any distributional principle of justice can be implemented without influencing the lives of the people (Gensler 238).

If compared to contemporary rights, Nozick believed that people possess their lives and everything they provide (for example, their physical body, abilities, talents, and the products of those things). However, the philosopher did not support paternalistic and moral legislation. In his view, the role of the state was limited to national protection, police work, and governance through the courts. The remaining functions, such as educational or social, were to be fulfilled by private institutions. Finally, Nozick did not support the redistribution of income which is usual today. He compared taxation to forced labor and slavery.


In a contemporary society, human rights are an inevitable component. We would not imagine life without freedom to move and express opinions, select religious beliefs to adhere to, or a political force to support. The rights to life, liberty or security seem to be integral parts of everyday social life. On the whole, human rights protect people and are aimed at guaranteeing an individual’s safety and quality of life.

Since the globalization process is active at the moment, many people travel from country to country freely. Some travel for pleasure, just to visit different places. Others go to different countries to work. Some are looking for a temporary job, others prefer a full-time career abroad. Indeed, at present, it is a common tendency to get an education or to build a career abroad. It is evident that people want to feel safe when living in another country. Therefore, the global acceptance and implementation of human rights is crucial. This aspect deals with the rights of security, as well as recognition everywhere as a person before the law, with rights to work and receive education (“Universal Declaration of Human Rights”).

Human rights are universal. The entitlement to any of the rights mentioned in the Declaration does not depend on factors such as, “race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status” (“Universal Declaration of Human Rights” 2). Thus, people are expected to demonstrate tolerance and avoid discrimination based on issues of religious beliefs, personal political thoughts, pursuing an education or applying for a job.

Although more and more people are becoming aware of their rights, the majority tend to forget about the closing articles of the Declaration. Thus, Article 29 is dedicated to duties which should be executed in the community where a person belongs (“Universal Declaration of Human Rights” 8). Moreover, in the process of exercising one’s rights and freedoms, people should be “subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society” (“Universal Declaration of Human Rights” 8).


Unfortunately, not all states follow a policy of human rights. The Eastern world, for example, is characterized by intolerance of religions other than Islam. China is known for having a strong policy of censorship of information, including Internet resources. Countries engage in military conflicts, thus denying the right of people to life and security. Even in less global settings, some employers still demonstrate discriminative behavior towards employees on the basis of race or gender.

Certainly, the situation with human rights has improved in the course of the past decades. This is true in all the social, political and cultural spheres. In fact, rights can be treated as freedoms. Consequently, people have more freedom to decide on their lives.

Every person has the responsibility for his or her actions. Nevertheless, every person should remember that duties and responsibilities come together with rights. A society which only makes use of the rights and does not take responsibility for the consequences of their actions does not have a future. Further development of humanity is only possible by balancing the safeguarding of rights alongside a strong awareness and understanding of individual and communal responsibility.

Works Cited

Bos, Gerhard, and Marcus Duwell. Human rights and Sustainability: Moral responsibilities for the Future. Routledge, 2017.

Churchill, Paul R. Human Rights and Global Diversity. Routledge, 2016.

Gensler, Harry J., et al. Ethics: Contemporary readings. Routledge, 2004.

Harris, David. et al. Law of the European Convention on Human Rights. 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2014.

Moka-Mubelo, Willy. Reconciling Law and Morality in Human Right discourse. Springer, 2017.

O’Byrne, Darren J. Human rights” An Introduction. Routledge, 2014.

Scruton, Roger. ” 2014.

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