Human Rights and Human Well-Being

Human Rights and Human Well-Being

Human Rights and Human Well-Being

Human Rights and Human Well-Being


In the last half of the twentieth century, legalized segregation ended in the southern United States, apartheid ended in South Africa, women in many parts of the world came to be recognized as having equal rights with men, persons with disabilities came to be recognized as having rights to develop and exercise their human capabilities, colonial peoples' rights of self-determination were recognized, and rights of gays and lesbians have begun to be recognized. It is hard not to see these developments as examples of real moral progress. But what is moral progress? In this book, William Talbott offers a surprising answer to that question. He proposes a consequentialist meta-theoretical principle of moral and legal progress, the "main principle", to explain why these changes are examples of moral and legal progress. On Talbott's account, improvements to our moral or legal practices are changes that, when evaluated as a practice, contribute to equitably promoting well-being.Talbott uses the main principle to explain why almost all the substantive moral norms and principles used in moral or legal reasoning have exceptions and why it is almost inevitable that, no matter how much we improve them, there will always be more exceptions. This explanation enables Talbott to propose a new, non-skeptical understanding of what has been called the "naturalistic fallacy". Talbott uses the main principle to complete the project begun in his 2005 book of identifying the human rights that should be universal-that is, legally guaranteed in all human societies. Talbott identifies a list of fourteen robust, inalienable human rights. Talbott contrasts his consequentialist (though not utilitarian) account with many of the most influential nonconsequentialist accounts of morality and justice in the philosophical literature, including those of Ronald Dworkin, Jurgen Habermas, Martha Nussbaum, Phillip Pettit, John Rawls, T.M. Scanlon, Amartya Sen, and Judith Thomson.


In this, the second of two volumes, I continue the project of explaining which rights should be universally guaranteed to all normal human adults by governments everywhere. In the first volume I focused on what I regard as the basic human rights. In this book I discuss both basic and nonbasic human rights and explain more fully why the rights I discuss, both basic and nonbasic, should be universal. I have written this book to stand on its own, so that it is not necessary to have read the first volume before reading this one.

My goal is to contribute to an important explanatory project in political philosophy. In this chapter I say what the project is and provide an overview of how I propose to contribute to it. The first volume dealt extensively with the metaphysics and the epistemology of moral belief. In this chapter, I review that discussion briefly and then, in chapters 7 and 8, I develop the epistemology more fully.

Mill’s and Rawls’s Consequentialist Projects

Perhaps the best way to introduce the project of this book is to do so historically. The project began in the 1850s with J. S. Mill’s On Liberty [1859]. Mill’s book was to be a new kind of defense of a package of autonomy rights, including rights to freedom of thought and discussion, freedom of the press, freedom of association, and freedom from paternalism. Mill was not the first philosopher to defend a package of autonomy rights. Locke and Kant, among many others, had defended such rights long before Mill. What made Mill’s defense of them distinctive was that he did not begin by assuming such rights or by assuming that they were to be justified by the intrinsic value of autonomy. He intended to show that a package of autonomy rights could be justified on utilitarian grounds—that is, on the basis of the contribution to overall well-being that would result from the government’s legally enforcing them.

Would the rights be absolute, so that no exceptions could ever be justified? Though Mill sometimes wrote in a way that suggested the rights should be absolute, from his discussion of examples it is clear that he did allow for exceptions. This is not surprising, because even most nonconsequentialists allow that rights have some exceptions.

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