Degree Type

Honors Capstone Project

Date of Submission

Spring 5-1-2011

Capstone Advisor

Kenneth Baynes

Honors Reader

John Robertson

Capstone Major


Capstone College

Arts and Science

Audio/Visual Component


Capstone Prize Winner


Won Capstone Funding


Honors Categories


Subject Categories

Ethics and Political Philosophy | Philosophy


Philosophical discourse on human rights is broad and contested, and not all of it agrees with human rights practice. None of the common philosophical problems, such as the reconciliation between theory and human rights law, the debate between civil-political and socio-economic rights, or even what sort of thing human rights are, has been answered definitively. What is uncontested, however, is the fact that human rights are far from fulfilled in the world today, as world poverty and inequality persist into the 21st century.

A recent trend across the board—from philosophy to development studies to human rights practice—is to view poverty as a human rights issue, and see how the often-divergent idioms of human development and human rights might converge. This project aims not to solve this problem definitively or answer any question like “what are human rights.” Instead, it takes poverty and human suffering as a starting point, and asks what a conception of human rights needs to look like in order to focus on them. Three approaches to human rights theory are discussed. I begin with an analysis of Thomas Pogge’s project to make poverty-centered human rights amenable to libertarian-flavored views about redistributive duties. A complex empirical argument is required for his theory to give any real result, and this seriously constrains the practical efficacy of his approach.

Mathias Risse articulates the problems with Pogge’s account, and offers an innovative conception of human rights informed by development practice. I introduce his arguments against Pogge, including his “institutional thesis” that development and aid are restricted by how they can influence domestic institutions, and conclude that a middle ground between the two views is possible. Risse offers a useful four-part schema for thinking about human rights, but his construal of human rights as membership rights raises serious concerns about his reliance on an overly innovative idea of common ownership of the Earth and a potentially misguided conception of the global order.

Out of the dialectic between these two innovative human rights conceptions, I turn to a more orthodox view based on Martha Nussbaum and Amarta Sen’s idea of capabilities. I hold that such an approach, while perhaps open to some standard objections, may be the only way to ground a poverty-focused human rights that reliably unifies development and human rights practitioners. The responsibilities discharged by such an approach focus on capacity building through grassroots support, encourage this as an international concern, and see human rights as guides for domestic policy. To rely on a neo-Aristotlean thesis is ultimately unsatisfying with regards to many philosophical issues, but we can accept this based on a notion of sentimentality and a desire to preserve the strengths of human rights discourse as it is.

I close the paper with a brief account of recent rights-based legislation in India. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act guarantees every rural household a minimum of employment and is a crucial instrumental step in policy geared toward ending poverty in India. It falls short of guaranteeing a right to work, but serves a crucial instrumental role in guaranteeing other capability-rights and provides an institutional ground for duties of assistance.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.



To view the content in your browser, please download Adobe Reader or, alternately,
you may Download the file to your hard drive.

NOTE: The latest versions of Adobe Reader do not support viewing PDF files within Firefox on Mac OS and if you are using a modern (Intel) Mac, there is no official plugin for viewing PDF files within the browser window.