Republican Human Rights?

AuthorDuncan Ivison
Publication Date01 Jan 2010
DOI10.1177/1474885109349396
SubjectArticles
Republican Human Rights?
Duncan Ivison University of Sydney
abstract: The very idea of republican human rights, seems paradoxical. My aim
in this article is to explore this disjunctive conjunction. One of the distinctive features
of republican discourse, both in its civic humanist and neo-Roman variants, is the
secondary status that rights are supposed to play in politics. Although the language
of rights is not incommensurable with republican political thought, it is supposed to
know its place. What can republican categories of political understanding offer for
grappling with the challenges of global politics? Many philosophical expressions of
human rights today are Kantian or neo-Kantian in inspiration, and as a result they are
plagued by the familiar difculties raised by Kantian approaches to politics in general.
In particular, the growing prominence of human rights discourse has led to withering
attacks on the appeal to human rights without any effective means of enforcement.
Does republicanism offer any resources for rethinking human rights, and in particular,
addressing the concern with the often moralistic and depoliticizing nature of human
rights talk today? What conception of human rights best promotes freedom as non-
domination? Are our practices of human rights effective instruments for minimizing
domination?
key words: democracy, freedom, human rights, non-domination, republicanism, rights
I
The very idea of republican rights, let alone republican human rights, seems para-
doxical. My aim in this article is to explore this disjunctive conjunction. One of
the distinctive features of republican discourse, both in its civic humanist and
neo-Roman variants, is the secondary or derivative status that rights are supposed
to play in politics. Although the language of rights is not incommensurable with
republican political thought, it is supposed to know its place. When we turn to
the possibility of republican human rights, even more problems abound. How can
we appeal to republican categories of political understanding in international and
transnational contexts? Many philosophical expressions of human rights today
31
article
Contact address: Duncan Ivison, Department of Philosophy, Quadrangle A14,
University of Sydney, NSW, Australia 2006.
Email: duncan.ivison@usyd.edu.au
EJPT
European Journal of Political Theory
9(1) 31–47
© The Author(s), 2010
Reprints and permission: http://www.
sagepub.co.uk/journalsPermissions.nav
[DOI: 10.1177/147488510934939]
http://ejpt.sagepub.com
European Journal of Political Theory 9(1)
32
are Kantian or neo-Kantian in inspiration, and as a result they are plagued by the
familiar difficulties raised by Kantian approaches to politics in general. In particu-
lar, the growing use of human rights rhetoric in recent years has led to withering
attacks on the whole idea of an appeal to human rights without any effective
means of enforcement or compliance.1 Does republicanism offer any resources for
rethinking human rights, and in particular, addressing the concern with the often
moralistic and depoliticizing nature of human rights talk today? What conception
of human rights best promotes freedom as non-domination? Are our practices of
human rights effective instruments for minimizing domination?
II
Let us begin with the relation between republicanism and rights more generally.
The concept of a right, at least according to one strand of liberalism, is closely
associated with the idea of autonomy and the notion of a boundary or perim-
eter of freedom around the individual defined against the state. Liberal citizens
have political rights in this tradition, but they are often defined in ways that are
structurally similar to private rights. The right to vote, for example, is a way
of ensuring the government tracks one’s most important interests. The right to
free speech is a means of protecting speech from being interfered with by the
state. Republicanism, on the other hand, and again along one of many possi-
ble dimensions, is closely associated with the idea of government and citizenship
defined in terms of positive belonging to and participation in the affairs of the
city or state. For someone like Rousseau, for example, individuals may well have
rights, including natural rights, but our moral and civil freedom is only realized
through the General Will. Rights aren’t pre-political constraints on the state, in
other words, but are realized through politics and the processes of collective will-
formation. The whole point of a republican legal order is thus different than in the
(simplified) liberal conception: whatever individual rights we have depend on the
‘objective’ legal and political order in which the conditions for self-determination
– both individual and collective – are made concrete, and not vice versa.2
The language of rights has also been seen to be at odds with republicanism
in other ways.3 J. G. A. Pocock, in his famous excavation of the ‘Machiavellian
Moment’ in Renaissance and early-modern political thought, contrasted the
language of rights and its emphasis on consent, contract and property, with a
civic humanist emphasis on actualization, virtue and politeness.4 Charles Taylor,
in his critique of atomism, has contrasted the kind of philosophical naturalism
and methodological individualism he associates with certain powerful strands of
modern liberalism with a civic republican language of collective goods and an
Aristotelian theory of practical reason. And Michael Sandel, in the United States,
building on Taylor’s arguments, has contrasted the ‘procedural republic’ and its
emphasis on neutrality, individual rights and the ‘unencumbered self’, with an
American civic republican tradition that emphasizes collective self-government

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