Human Rights, Needs, and Autonomy


All people have human rights and there is a close connection between human rights, needs, and autonomy. Accounting for this connection is difficult on many of the traditional rights theories. On many traditional theories, human rights protect individuals’ important interests. These theories are well suited to account for the fact that human rights protect individuals from dire need. Even the non-autonomous have some needs, which constitute some of their important interests. But because these theories sometimes say autonomy is not constitutive of the interests human rights protect they can fail to capture the close relationship between human rights and autonomy. On other traditional human rights theories, human rights only protect individuals’ autonomy. These theories avoid the problem sketched above. But, purely autonomy-based theories cannot explain the universality of rights -- some people lack autonomy. Furthermore, if human rights only protect individuals’ autonomy, human rights can be fulfilled and yet some can be left in dire need. So, some of the best known attempts to justify human rights either cannot appropriately connect human rights and autonomy or cannot account for the human right of all to meet their basic needs. This paper suggests that a theory on which human rights protect individuals’ ability to live minimally good lives should be taken seriously because it can avoid this dilemma. For, it argues, people need whatever will enable them to live such lives and autonomy is partly constitutive of such a life

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Nicole Hassoun
State University of New York at Binghamton

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