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This is a highly readable, up to date, and comprehensive monograph on human rights. Beside those interested in the theory of human rights, the book can be useful to upper level undergraduate teaching on moral and legal rights. There are fifteen chapters divided in three parts. In Part I, James Griffin presents his personhood account of human rights and, on his way, considers questions such as the metaphysics of human rights, their relativity and ethnocentricity, the nature of the subjects and the duty-bearers of human rights, and the way in which human rights conflict with each other and with other kinds of moral considerations. Part II, broaches the more substantial question concerning what human rights there are. At the highest level, the answer is that all human rights will come under one or the other of these three overarching headings: autonomy, welfare, and liberty. In Part III, Griffin works out the implications of his account for a selection of lower-level human rights such as the right to life, the right to death, the right to privacy, and questions such as the connection between democracy and human rights, and the status of groups rights as human rights.
At the core of On Human Rights, we find Griffin's personhood account, which states that human rights are moral rights (1), grounded on the notions of personhood or normative agency (45) and practicalities. Personhood centers on our being agents -- deliberating, assessing, choosing and acting to make what we see as a good life for ourselves. Human rights protect one's human standing, one's personhood. (32-33) As Griffin puts it (51), the notion of personhood protected by human rights is itself grounded on three core values: autonomy (agents must choose one's own path through life without domination or control by someone else or something else); minimum provision of resources and capabilities (e.g., education, information) necessary to act on one's choice; liberty (e.g., others must not forcibly stop one from pursuing what one sees as a worthwhile life). As for practicalities, Griffin reminds us that rights ought to afford an effective guide to behavior and, in order for them to do just that, we must include among their existence conditions practical considerations such as facts about human nature, the nature of society, and so on. (37)
Grounding human rights in personhood imposes an obvious constraint on their content: they are rights not to anything that promotes human good or flourishing, but merely to what is needed for human status. (34) This parsimony in the axiological basis of human rights may have some drawbacks. Torture, for example, is protected by a human right only insofar as it ultimately offends against personhood, rather than because it causes pain, avoidance of which is a central human interest. Griffin nonetheless thinks that his account has an edge over pluralist accounts of human rights, i.e., accounts that are grounded not on the few values of personhood but on all the values that constitute the human good (including pain avoidance). First, it would avoid making the language of human rights redundant: human rights language, however, would be redundant if it simply mirrored the pre-existing language of human goods. Secondly, it would limit the number of legitimate human rights claims: grounding human rights on all the human goods, however, would support the idea that we have a human right to whatever is necessary for a life to go well. This would further encourage the proliferation of human rights that characterizes the current political climate, and what is worse, it would turn human rights into empty or meaningless claims, as no one will be able to secure the goods claimed by such 'rights'.
To illustrate Griffin's parsimonious account in action (Ch XI), it suffices to point out that, on his list there is no such thing as a human right to work, to paid holidays, to peace, to upward mobility in employment, to the highest attainable level of physical and mental health, to compensation for unjust punishment, and to freedom of residence. As Griffin is quick to remind us, however, justice may favor or even require some of these things. But the language of justice is not the language of human rights (though, of course, the two may partly overlap). Griffin is also doubtful about the status of several due process rights such as the right to counsel in legal proceedings. In a similar vein, in Chapters XII and XIII, he spells out the scope of the right to life (it does not severely restrict the permissibility of contraception, abortion, suicide or euthanasia) and the right to privacy (there is a right to 'informational privacy' preventing publication and public scrutiny of certain acts, thoughts, utterances but no right to privacy that covers conduct just because it is performed in private). Finally, in a rare expansive move, Griffin argues for a genuine human right to death, notwithstanding the lack of widespread consensus on this issue in the international arena.
One of the most original contributions of On Human Rights consists in its methodology (Chs. 1-2). Griffin wants to propose a substantive account of human rights, i.e., one that adds enough content to the notion of 'human' in the term 'human rights' to tell us, for any such proposed right, whether it really is one -- one that thereby supplies what he calls 'existence conditions' for human right. A contrasting account of rights is the structural account, one that characterizes rights by certain formal features or by their role in a larger moral structure (rights as trumps or as side-constraints). Griffin argues against the latter that it is incomplete. But even within the substantive account there are two ways of going about. There is the top-down approach and a bottom-up approach. The former starts with an overarching principle, or principles, or an authoritative decision procedure from which human rights can then be derived. The latter starts with the use of 'human rights' in our actual social life by politicians, lawyers, social campaigners, as well as theorists of various sorts, and then sees what higher principles one must resort to in order to explain the moral weight of moral rights, when one thinks they have it, and to resolve conflicts between them. As Griffin readily recognizes, however, this approach is not trouble free. In the last so many years, claims to the status of a human right have proliferated. It becomes then particularly difficult to work one's way up to any higher principle or considered judgments starting from a bottom level containing such an undistinguished bundle of human rights claims. In order to find enough -- but not too much -- content to the notion of 'human', Griffin turns to the historical tradition and the notion of human dignity that grounded rights in various thinkers from the early Renaissance to Locke and Kant. As Griffin would say, we need to find fuller, more determinate criteria for identifying the elements of human dignity and hence his proposed non-pluralist notion of personhood.
I suspect that this approach will attract a lot of critical attention coming from all directions. Why look at the tradition, for one? After all, Griffin himself departs from it in important ways. Thinkers within the tradition in question, for example, tended to think that human beings, as opposed to other creatures, had inherent dignity insofar as they were similar to God in some respect or insofar as they were transcendentally free. Griffin's notion of personhood, however, does not display such metaphysical underpinnings. And once these are out of the picture, it is hard to understand why considerations of personhood and only those considerations should enjoy the sort of privileged political status that human rights enjoy today. Appeal to the tradition will hardly persuade those who have more pluralistic inclinations. These may come in two shapes: those who think that values such as justice and equality should also ground human rights, and those who think that an appropriate account of human rights should feature a fuller understanding of the human good. Both, however, will have to face the redundancy and loss of meaningfulness objections, with which the personhood account deals quite admirably indeed.
This book is clearly up to the same standards as Griffin's previous monographs, with which it connects in several places. Griffin's grasp of complex issues in ethics and metaethics informs many of the issues in legal philosophy that are otherwise often treated in abstraction from these questions. It is a much needed addition to the philosophical literature on human rights.
© 2009 Raffaele Rodogno
Raffaele Rodogno, Ph.D., Senior Research Fellow, Swiss National Fund for Scientific Research; Visiting Academic, Faculty of Philosophy, University of Oxford; Associate Professor, Philosophy Department, Aarhus University.