Social Structural Standards as Human Rights

ERI 149
Wednesday 14 November 2018 (15:15-17:00)

Dr Beth Kahn (Durham University)

Dr Kahn is an assistant Professor in Political Theory at the University of Durham School of Government and International Affairs. Her research centres around questions of social injustice and political action. Previously she worked as a postdoctoral fellow at the Goethe University as part of the ‘Justitia Amplificata’ research group.

This seminar is part of the 2018-19 Global Ethics Tea Seminar Series hosted by the Centre for the Study of Global Ethics.


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights identifies a broad range of rights that its writers agreed deserved international recognition as being owed to humans everywhere out of respect for their inherent dignity (United Nations General Assembly 1948).  Since then, the term 'human right' has come to be used to identify the most pressing normative concerns owed equally to individuals everywhere. Such normative priorities are usually thought to include both claims to be free from maltreatment and claims to the basic necessities required to live a decent life. Yet many philosophical accounts of the concept of a 'human right' struggle to accommodate many of the rights identified in the universal declaration and claimed throughout the world.   When human rights are understood to be interpersonal claims, the difficulty comes in identifying which persons (if any) actually have correlative duties to fulfil the rights (O'Neill 2005), whereas when human rights are understood to be claims that state governments should fulfil, the problem is that many governments lack the ability to fulfil these claims (Cranston 1983). 

In response to these problems, this paper proposes a new, more inclusive, account of the concept of a human right that can include social structural standards. It argues that if we adopt such an approach we can avoid having to exclude many socio-economic human rights because they do not fit technical aspects of the concept. The paper challenges those who favour an approach that requires that rights be directly tied to duties, to adapt their accounts so as to be able to recognise socio-economic claims, or come up with a substantive argument to support the prioritisation of the human rights they do recognise over basic claims of social justice that their accounts cannot recognise.

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