Human Rights and Human Well-Being

By William J. Talbott | Go to book overview

THREE
The Main Principle

In the previous chapter, I explained how the process of moral reasoning that leads to libertarian natural rights principles also leads beyond them. I continue to use exceptions to libertarian natural rights as an expository device, because, ultimately, it helps me to explain why the human rights that should be universal are different from and, especially, more extensive than libertarian natural rights.

However, there is a danger that this expository device could be misunderstood as limiting my account of human rights only to those who begin with libertarian natural rights in a state of nature. This would be a mistake. The main principle is a meta-theoretic principle that will explain the exceptions to any ground-level moral practice.

The near opposite of a libertarian starting point would be a starting point that begins with a moral code that authorizes a sovereign to exercise absolute coercive power. If we adopt this starting point, we can tell a story about how limits on the sovereign’s power can be morally appropriate. This is much closer to the historical story of the development of human rights in Western Europe than a fanciful story that starts in a state of nature. In the previous volume (Talbott 2005, chap. 4), I discussed a striking example of this sort of development, the example of Bartolomé de las Casas. Las Casas originally helped to colonize the Americas and thus to bring them under the legal authority of the king and queen of Spain and the religious authority of the Pope. Ultimately, he decided that the imposition of both kinds of authority on the natives was a disastrous mistake. Las Casas came to believe that the American natives should have been allowed to have their own government and practice their own religion. This change in the moral views he had held when he first arrived in the Americas was endorsed by the main principle.

The very same principle that explains the exceptions to libertarian natural rights will also explain exceptions to moral codes that authorize absolute sovereigns and, indeed, exceptions to all other moral codes in traditions that have passed the consequentialist threshold. It will also explain why, regardless of starting point, moral progress leads toward legal guarantees for a set of universal human rights. I use the example of exceptions to libertarian natural rights to illustrate one pathway to legal guarantees of human rights. It is a useful expository device, because, although there is no longer any serious moral defense of absolute sovereigns, moral defenses of some form of qualified

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