The Difficulty of Tolerance: Essays in Political Philosophy

By T. M. Scanlon | Go to book overview
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6
Human rights as a neutral concern

The thesis that human rights should be an important determinant of foreign policy derives support from certain ideas about what human rights are like. These include the following. Human rights, it is held, are a particularly important class of moral considerations. Their gross and systematic violation represents not just the failure to meet some ideal but rather a case of falling below minimum standards required of political institutions. Second, human rights are of broad application. They apply not only to countries that have recognized these rights in their legal institutions, and not merely to countries that are “like us” in their political traditions or in their economic development, but to virtually all countries. Human rights are not controversial in the way that other political and economic issues are. This is not to say that everyone respects them or that there is full agreement about what they entail. But the central human rights are recognized, for example, in the constitutions of countries whose political principles are otherwise quite divergent. This normal acceptance, and the fact that violations of human rights are not confined to governments of any particular ideological stripe but occur both on the left and on the right, lend support to the idea that concern for human rights is a ground for action that is neutral with respect to the main political and economic divisions in the world. Thus, whatever our other political commitments may be, we have reason to be opposed to violations of human rights whether they are carried out by regimes of the right or of the left; whether these regimes are parliamentary democracies, military dictatorships, or monarchies. In addition to having this ideological neutrality, it is often held, or at least thought, that human rights are practically separable from partisan political issues. Thus, in particular, to advocate a cessation of human rights violations in a country does not involve advocating a change in regime. One can oppose what the government is doing without opposing the government, or supporting the opposition.

The first of these ideas—the minimal character of human rights—is important to the positive case for making human rights a determinant of

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