The Ethical Foundations of Human Rights Conference

This conference will bring together leading thinkers from across disciplines to explore the ethical foundations of human rights in the 21st century. Underlying the discussion will be an exploration of some of the more challenging philosophical and practical questions that have come into view as human rights thinkers have sought to translate the ideals that are embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into action. 

In 1948, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly, beginning the codification process of human rights in international law. The preamble affirms the “recognition of the inherent dignity and…equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family” and goes further to assert that human rights are “the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”(United Nations, 1948).
Human rights have become increasingly codified, in both national and international legal systems. While debates have focused on what types of rights should be codified, political rights, social rights, economic rights, and even environmental rights, less attention has been paid to examining the ethical foundations of the concept of human rights.

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Conference Schedule 

9:30 -10:00 

10:00 -10:15    

10:15 - 11:15   

11:15 -11:30    

11:30 - 12:30   

12:30 - 1:30   

1:30 - 2:30     

2:30 - 2:45    

2:45 - 3:45 

3:45 - 4:45    

4:45 - 5:00


Opening Remarks

Professor Raimond Gaita, University of Melbourne

Coffee Break 

Professor Samuel J. Kerstein, University of Maryland 


Professor Alison Brysk, University of California, Santa Barbara 

Coffee Break 

Professor Karol Soltan, University of Maryland 

Roundtable Discussion Moderated by Professor Michael Penn 

Closing Remarks 




Dr. Alison Brysk 
University of California 
"Why Rights Are Right: The Politics of Persuasion"
Human rights are both beloved and beleaguered in the 21st century, and we struggle to justify their principles, ethos, and institutions.  The global rights regime and worldwide movement have grown through a politics of persuasion including a range of appeals to altruism, identity, cosmopolitan world order, and interdependence.  We will explore the trajectory and prospects of these strategies of “speaking rights to power” in a troubled world.
Dr. Raimond Gaita
University of Melbourne 
"Human Rights and the Frail Idea of A Common Humanity"
The idea of a community of nations that gives political expression to the common humanity of all the peoples of the earth is at present rather thin, but it is not empty. For it to be more fully realised, members of that community must – as must members of any collective that deserves to be called a community - care about serious harm suffered by other members, whether it is caused by natural events or by crimes committed against them. For that reason, a community of nations will, in significant part, be determined by the degree to which member nations render themselves fully answerable to international law, especially those instruments of it that deal with war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and torture. Rendering oneself – one’s citizens including, of course, one’s leaders - answerable to them is necessary of attachment to country (nation) is to be rescued from jingoism, or from what anthropologist Ghassan Hage has called “paranoid nationalism” and its often-murderous consequences.
Much of the fight for the existence of such a community and for the importance of international law to its constitution, has been under the banner of human rights. Many of the important instruments of international law have preambles that refer to the Dignity of Humanity (capitals intended), the Dignity of the Person, even of alienable dignity. Many people believe that Dignity of that kind underwrites inalienable human rights. I shall suggest that noble though the fight for human rights has been, the way we now talk of human rights and of human Dignity both expresses and further encourages an ethical literacy that is as thin as the idea of a community of nations now is, and undermines the prospects for a richer conception of it and of the common humanity of all the peoples of the earth. I acknowledge that will seem paradoxical, even unnerving, to many people.  To help me explain why I believe it, I will refer to the work of Simone Weil.
Dr. Samuel J. Kerstein, University of Maryland
"Treating Others Merely as Means"
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) repeatedly invokes human dignity, but it does not define the notion. If, as the UDHR implies, our respecting human dignity is central to our treating one another justly, it makes sense for us to ask what respect for human dignity requires. This paper discusses a Kantian account of respect for human dignity. On this account, one way to fail to respect it is to treat a person merely as a means, that is, to “just use” him. The paper takes steps towards answering the question of when, precisely, a person treats another merely as a means.
Dr. Karol Soltan
University of Maryland
"Looking for a deeper meaning of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights"
I propose we search for a deeper meaning of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in two directions, so to speak. In the end I will conclude that the two are crucially connected, which is why it makes sense to discuss them together.
First, we can see the UDHR as a window onto a conception of justice for the modern world, a conception of global justice that centers on human rights and human dignity, but is not content to rest with a list of rights and the rather obscure concept of dignity. We need a serious code of justice through which we can clarify the conception of human dignity, and through which we can justify a list of human rights like the one in the UDHR.
Second, we can see the UDHR as part of the slowly emerging project of the next stage of modernity. We can begin to catch some first glimpses of it, especially in the periods of political awakening that surround the symbolic years 1948, 1968, 1989, and 2008.
In each of these periods we have new issues and new forms of politics emerge. In 1948, it was the universal global project, and a new public morality centered on human rights and development. In 1968, it was the struggle against technocracy, and the protection of the environment. In 1989, it was civic society and the organization of bottom up politics. In 2008, it was corruption and inequality. These (and more) can be seen as slowly accumulating central components of a new stage in the project of modernity.
We are still missing a unifying perspective on this new stage. We don’t have it perhaps because very few people are making any effort to construct it. Some are content to maintain their loyalty to the modernity we inherit from the Enlightenment. Others choose rather to speak for the crisis of modernity (the term post-modernity is often used).
I believe it is high time to give expression to a conception of the next stage of modernity that builds on the experiences of 1948, 1968, 1989, and 2008, and can guide us in the much needed recovery of nerve and restoration of confidence required for a renaissance of the project of modernity.. At the historical and moral roots of this new stage of modernity we find the UDHR. So the two deeper meanings of the UDHR are in fact connected. We can see in UDHR a crucial component of the moral foundation of the next stage of the project of modernity.

Dr. Michael Penn          Franklin & Marshall College 

Dr. Michael Penn - Roundtable Moderator

Dr Penn is a Clinical Psychologist and Professor of Psychology at Franklin & Marshall College.  His research interests and publications explore the application of psychological research & theory to human rights, the interpenetration of psychology and philosophy, and the relationship between culture and psychopathology. Professor Penn serves the UN Leader’s Programme, which trains Director-level United Nations officers.  He is the author of “Overcoming Violence against Women and Girls: The International Campaign to Eradicate a Worldwide Problem” and numerous academic papers and chapters. In 2004 Penn was appointed to the Board of Directors of the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Administration by Governor Edward Rendell. He currently serves on the Board of the Authenticity Institute, which trains corporate, medical, and educational leaders around the world, as well as a member of the Permanent Board of the Tahirih Justice Center, which provides legal, clinical, and human rights protections for women fleeing gender-based persecution and violence.  Professor Penn was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa in 1986 and is a former Ford Foundation Fellow.  He has received numerous academic awards for his research and scholarship, including the John Russwurm award from the University of Pennsylvania and the Solomon Wank Fellowship in Peace Studies from Franklin & Marshall College.


Wednesday, March 28, 2018 - 9:00am to 6:00pm

The Bahá'í Chair for World Peace
University of Maryland
3101 Chincoteague Hall
7401 Preinkert Drive
College Park, MD 20742

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