Justifying human rights means answering the question “why do we need human rights?”. In this post I won’t try to answer that question (I tried to do that elsewhere) but rather discuss the reasons why we need to ask it in the first place. We need to ask that question because the desirability or necessity of human rights isn’t self-evidently or axiomatically true, like it’s the case with a phrase such as “nothing can both be and not be at the same time and in the same respect”. The latter phrase doesn’t require proof and can or even should be accepted as such. The same doesn’t apply to phrases such as “we need human rights”, “human rights are desirable rules”, “human rights are rules of morality” or “people ought to respect human rights”. Those phrases aren’t self-evident. They require rational and argumentative support. Not proof, of course, since there is never any proof in moral, legal or political matters. What they do require is the support of sound arguments.
Fortunately, it’s the case that many people, perhaps even a majority of humanity, believe that those phrases about human rights are actually self-evidently true. And a substantial part of those people, for a substantial part of their activity, act as if those phrases are self-evidently true. Still, this sociological fact about public opinion and public behavior does not absolve us from the duty of answering the question “why do we need human rights?”. After all, slavery was once believed to be self-evidently necessary by a majority of public opinion (as far as we can tell), and yet this wasn’t, fortunately, a good reason not to ask why it should be necessary. What ought to be can never be settled by pointing to what is (otherwise we would commit the so-called naturalistic fallacy).
In general, people should give reasons for their beliefs and actions. Some would even say that giving such reasons is what makes us human. Giving a justification for human rights is therefore an intellectual necessity. And it would require this even if every single individual believed that human rights are necessary and always acted in accordance with this belief. But, of course, not every individual believes this, or acts according to this belief. Hence the exercise of justifying human rights also has a practical necessity: some of those who don’t believe in human rights, or whose belief isn’t sufficiently strong to guide all their actions, may be persuaded by a good justification. I say “some”, because others are perhaps not open to rational persuasion or argumentation. Good luck trying to convince Ted Bundy or Osama bin Laden of the desirability of human rights. But even when faced with people like them, it’s good to have a sound justification of human rights, not because it will help to convince them, but because it will help us to know what we are doing with them and why we are doing it.
So, if it’s accepted that we have to try to produce a sound and possibly convincing answer to the question “why do we need human rights?”, and that this answer should be based on rational arguments, we still haven’t said anything about the content of such an answer. I think there’s a good reason for keeping that content as open as possible. I don’t believe that it’s possible to find the One or the Best Justification. There are many good ways of justifying human rights, none of them obviously better than all others. Some justifications will be more convincing to some people, others more to other people. Some justifications may even be in conflict with each other, or logically incompatible. And other justifications may be deeply flawed and yet convincing to many. None of this is a problem. None of it implies that human rights are self-defeating, incoherent or wrong. All that matters is that a maximum number of people find their own justifications and are sufficiently persuaded by them.
Justifications may be based on religious revelation or logical reasoning. On utilitarian calculations or on moral and deontological rules. On strong principles or on opportunistic reasons (opportunism on the part of rulers who believe that their rule may be safer when they respect human rights, or opportunism on the part of citizens who believe that their own rights will be safer when they respect the rights of others in a spirit of reciprocity). Justifications may use one moral value (for example dignity, equality or liberty) or may try to accommodate the plurality of human values. They may be based on a conception of a minimally good life which human rights are supposed to guarantee, or on something more. Justifications can also be derivative: like postulating one fundamental human right (e.g. the equal right of all to be free) and then trying to deduce all other rights from this basic right. And, finally, it may not be the content, the postulates, the basis, the structure or the motivation of the justification that can differ, but also its form: justifications may be rational endeavors like the examples cited here, or may ditch rationality altogether and use emotions such as sympathy. Whatever helps.
Here‘s a related post on the justification of the right to free speech.