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    Thomas Pogge’s Human Rights
    Thomas Pogge’s Human Rights

    What are human rights (HR)? Usually we see those as empty phrases, that nobody cares about, on some Universal Declaration papers. Officially HR are some kind of agreements between people, like laws that have a veto-like power on what we can do to each other. But according to Thomas Pogge, there are moral human rights that exist independently of agreements. No government can legislate those rights out of existence and the governments are legitimate only when they respect those rights. Pogge sees HR as moral claims on the organization of the society. This organization should be as such as everybody has certainty about the respect of HR. This creates duties on governments but also on the average citizen, to realize the best organization of the society. Pogge explains his concept of HR in contrast with what he sees the modern concept in a chapter titled “How Should Human Rights Be Conceived?” in his book “World Poverty and Human Rights”.
    Pogge has two aims: to explicate the moral notion of human rights and determine the correlative responsibilities.

    Modern concept of human rights
    Initially, he defines the concept of human rights (HR) as having four characteristics:
    1.    HR are moral concerns.
    2.    They are a special class of moral concerns that outweigh other considerations. They have priority in regard with other moral concerns.
    3.    They are unrestricted, “we believe that whether persons ought to respect [them] does not depend on their particular epoch, culture, religion, moral tradition, or philosophy.”
    4.    They are “broadly sharable (…) capable of being understood and appreciated by persons from different epochs and cultures as well as by adherents of a variety of different religions, moral traditions, and philosophies”.
    The source of the moral claim are certain subjects, ‘rightholders’, usually individual human beings. By violating a right, “one wrongs the subject whose right it is.” “The point of respecting them is the protection of others; one’s concern to honor one’s moral duties is motivated by a deeper and prior moral concern for the interests of others.”

    The adjective ‘human’ makes HR political, avoiding “metaphysical and metaethical issues by implying nothing about” their ontological status. All human beings have equal HR. “all human beings have exactly the same human rights."[T]he moral significance of human rights and human-rights violations does not vary with whose human rights are at stake; as far as human rights are concerned, all human beings matter equally.”

    Human-rights violations “must be in some sense official”, perpetrated mostly by governments. For instance we don’t see a husband beating his wife as a human rights violations. This official disrespect make them especially hideous, in contrast with private moral wrongs, because it attacks those very rights, “the idea of right and justice.”

    There are two factors that are crucial to the elements Pogge introduces later:
    •    It is vital that people are (and feel) secure about respect for HR. We can read Pogge like saying that when we think about all possible cases when we consider a crime a HR problem, the common factor in all those cases is that people are insecure in obtaining the objects of HR. It is only the organization of a society that can guarantee this secure access.
    •    It is not governments alone, but also people’s attitudes that play a key role in a society’s HR record. While the government is the “primary guardian (…) people are their ultimate guardian”. “More reliable than a commitment by the government, which may undergo a radical change in personnel from one day to the next, is a commitment by (…) vigilant citizenry.” Respect for HR is also fortified by the “education system and the economic distribution.”

    Interactional corresponding duties, minimalists and maximalists 
    “The concept of rights suggests an interactional understanding, matching each right with certain directly corresponding duties.” What he means is that for each human right there is a single duty. For instance if I have a human right to be free from torture, there is one corresponding duty for you not to torture me. This view is attributed to the modern concept of HR and Pogge departs from this view, as we shall see later.

    In regard to the duties, there is a distinction between the minimalist and the maximalist camps. The libertarians are minimalist, they require the duties “to be exclusively negative duties (to refrain from violating the right in question)”, such as refraining from torture, not to kill etc. Minimalists are unsympathetic to economic rights, such as rights to social security, work, rest and leisure, an adequate standard of living, education, for instance. Those rights are declared in Articles 22–7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). (It might be an interesting piece of related trivia to know that nearly half of adult Americans surveyed by the Hearst Corporation in 1987 believed that Karl Marx’s aphorism “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” was to be found in the US Constitution.) Those rights entail positive duties, that is, efforts made to fulfill them.

    Minimalists reject those rights based on two arguments. Those rights might put unjustified burdens on the shoulders of the duty bearers. Why should I have a duty to pay for you a meal or vacation? Secondly it is unclear who should bear all those duties.

    Conversely, the maximalists maintain that everybody who is in position to effect HR has both negative and positive duties to do so for all human beings, anywhere on earth.

    Pogge’s novelties
    Pogge wants to bridge the gap between those two camps with two novel ideas.

    First by introducing an institutional understanding of HR. He postulates that a “human right to X” entails the fact that every social system ”ought to be so (re)organized that all its members have secure access to X”. This leads him to conclude that “[h]uman rights are, then, moral claims on the organization of one’s society.” Pogge sees support for this claim in Article 28 of the UDHR: “Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.”

    He even makes a stronger claim that “[p]ersons share responsibility for official disrespect of human rights within any coercive institutional order they are involved in upholding,” stating that this is especially true within a state and that only those participating in the same social system bear this responsibility.
    But don’t cheer yet, for, in a note he writes that “[w]e have such responsibility if we are influential and privileged participants in a transnational scheme of social institutions under which some persons (…) [are] denied secure access to the objects of their human rights. I believe that this empirical condition is satisfied and that we thus have a human-rights-based duty to work for reforms of our global institutional order that would reduce or eliminate the incidence of wars and of severe poverty, both of which tend to produce human-rights violations and insecure access on a massive scale.”

    The degree of responsibility/blameworthiness depends on circumstances, the available means, how much advantage one has and other factors such as education.

    The second way in which Pogge bridges the gap between the minimalists and the maximalists is by sustaining the notion that HR entail only negative duties. Citizens have a negative duty “not to cooperate in upholding a coercive institutional order that restricts the freedom to access to basic necessities (…) unless they compensate for their cooperation by protecting its victims or by working for its reform.” In this new view, each right is not matched with only one corresponding duty, but the duties will amount to the necessary means to maintain an institutional order that guarantees safe access to the objects of HR.
    Pogge writes that governments and individuals have a responsibility “to work for an institutional order and public culture that ensure that all members of society have secure access to the objects of their human rights.” And “[d]epending on context, this duty may (… )generate obligations to advocate and support programs to improve literacy and unemployment benefits…” One can see this in contradiction to his claim that this is a part of the negative duty not to “help uphold and impose (…) coercive social institutions under which [people] do not have secure access to the objects of their human rights”

    I would claim that I shared Pogge’s view about HR. Those are rights about the organization of one’s society and the world. Those should be in such a way organized as to guarantee the respect for human rights.


    Pogge, Thomas Winfried Menko. 2008. How Should Human Rights Be Conceived? In World poverty and human rights : cosmopolitan responsibilities and reforms. Cambridge: Polity.



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