There is growing unease at the contemporary proliferation and inflation of human rights. Not only do undeserving cases benefit from over-generous or quixotic judicial interpretations of Labour’s Human Rights Act, but there is a booming business in ascribing rights to groups. Peoples, nations, races, ethnic, cultural and religious groups are now perceived to have rights deriving somehow from their mere existence. To individuals, meanwhile, are ascribed — sometimes with the force of law — rights to such things as life, jobs, education, health, emotional well-being, self-fulfilment, holidays with pay and even happiness. Whence do these rights derive, how should we determine what they are and how far should they go?
James Griffin, Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford, modestly sees his book as an early contribution to a theoretical critique of modern interpretations of rights, but it is more significant than that. Academic, intellectually demanding, clearly written and rigorously thought through, it takes a wise, sceptical and tolerant look at the philosophical underpinnings of an evolving concept that has increasingly practical implications for our daily lives; and it concludes by challenging the need for an entire generation of rights.
The idea of human rights, interpreted then as natural law, has roots in Greece and Rome. It was given its most influential statement by Aquinas but it was the Enlightenment that brought it into modern form — essentially that rights are things we have by virtue of being human. Since then there has been a great spawning of rights, but with no theoretical development of the concept itself. We need, says Griffin,
an account of ‘human rights’ with at least enough content to tell us, for any proposed right . . . whether it really is one and to what it is a right.