Human Rights and Human Well-Being

By William J. Talbott | Go to book overview

FOURTEEN
Clarifications and Responses
to Objections

The Moral Significance of Borders

In this book, I have deepened the consequentialist account of basic human rights from the first volume and extended it to a longer list of basic and nonbasic human rights. My account of human rights qualifies as an institutional account (e.g., Nagel 2005), because I conceive of them as rights that all governments should guarantee to everyone everywhere. Because my account depends on governments to guarantee the rights, it is institutional.

Some advocates of human rights believe that securing human rights is the responsibility not only of governments, but also of individuals. No such account has adequately addressed the problem of nonideal theory discussed by Murphy (2000). It is quite plausible that I might have an obligation to contribute my fair share to provide medication for those who are HIV+ in Africa. It is not plausible that if no one else contributes their fair share then I am responsible for all providing medication for as many of those who are HIV+ in Africa as I can support on my salary.

Because my account of human rights grounds them in moral reciprocity, it may seem that my account has no implications for human rights across borders. It is true that if there were two isolated societies with no potential for mutually beneficial interaction, my account would imply that there were no moral reciprocity relations between them and thus the main principle would not apply to relations between them. One society might well have humanitarian duties toward the other, but those would not be covered by the main principle.

However, the world we inhabit is not like this. In the world we inhabit there is a vast web of economic and social relations between the members of different states. Those relations are governed by coercive enforcement of international law and custom—including, for example, laws of property and contract. The main principle applies to those reciprocity relations, but it applies to relations between individuals, not states (cf. Blake forthcoming). Even if, contrary to fact, it were true that international trade equitably divided the gains from trade among governments, if those governments did not translate the gains into policies that equitably promoted the life prospects of their citizens, the main principle would favor an alternative arrangement that did so.

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