Human rights embody the humanist egalitarian principle that all human beings are morally important, and that they are morally important simply because of their humanity. Princes and paupers, bankers and bums, women and men . . . we’re all subjects of human rights that are not contingent on anything other than our humanity.
There is widespread agreement that the rise of humanism is one of the most important milestones in the history of moral progress. However, it also clear that the rise of humanism did not, by itself, bring us all the way down the path of progress to where we are today: throughout colonial history, for example, humanism failed to deliver us from outrageous discrimination when the boundaries of humanity were delineated too narrowly.
Humanists are just as prone to inhumane conduct when they fail to recognize other’s humanity. When we determine what is human (and must therefore be treated with respect), we tacitly also determine what is un-human (and can therefore be exploited). As Carl Schmitt put it “Given the coherence of this two-sided aspect of humanity, it should be remembered that Bacon opposed the axiom homo homini deus to that of homo homini lupus.” (The nomos of the earth, 1950)
That’s why contemporary, liberal constitutions that recognize human rights are so great. All people are recognized as being equally human, and therefore equally subjects of human rights. This is certainly a form of moral progress. However, narrow human rights-based approaches to politics, legislation and policy-making can have similarly perverse consequences as narrow forms of humanism. Instead of delivering us from outrageous discrimination, marginalization and exploitation, a narrow focus on rights might confine us to them. For example, there is growing evidence that human-rights-based legislation and litigation often fails to achieve an effective enjoyment of the right to health to among those who need it most. Even more troubling is the possibility that, sometimes, rights-based approaches not only have little positive effects, but might in fact lead to further marginalization and disenfranchising of the poor.