Wednesday, November 3, 2010

William J. Talbott's "Human Rights and Human Well-Being"

William J. Talbott is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Washington, where he has been teaching since 1989. He has published articles in moral and political philosophy, especially the philosophy of human rights, philosophy of law, epistemology, and rational choice theory. His new book, Human Rights and Human Well-Being, is the second of two volumes on human rights. The first was Which Rights Should Be Universal? (Oxford, 2005).

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to Human Rights and Human Well-Being and reported the following:
My book Human Rights and Human Well-Being is a book in the philosophy of human rights. It addresses such questions as: What is a human right? What reasons do we have to believe in human rights? (Hint: They are not self-evident.) What is the relation between human rights and human well-being?

On page 99, the reader will find a statement of one of the most important themes of my book:
Noncategorical norms and principles enable human societies to evolve social practices that, over time, can do a better job of equitably promoting life prospects than any system of categorical norms and principles would. No matter what system of ground-level norms or principles a human society may have, there is always a potential for improvement.
In most religious and cultural traditions, young people are taught that there are infallible, exceptionless (i.e., categorical) moral principles and rules (norms). Somehow, many of those who undergo the training acquire the ability to recognize at least some exceptions to those very norms. For example, Victor Hugo wrote Les Miserables for an audience who had been taught that it is always wrong to steal. But for the novel to be successful, Hugo had to believe that he could persuade his readers to at least think that there might be an exception for Jean Valjean, a father who was stealing bread to save his children from starvation.

Throughout history, people have been ostracized and put to death for announcing that there are exceptions to the accepted moral norms, but that ability to recognize exceptions is the engine of moral progress. In Human Rights and Human Well-Being, I explain the development of human rights as a product of this process of moral improvement. I explain why it is a mistake to expect moral norms to be exceptionless. If we regard them as non-categorical (i.e., as containing exceptions), we can welcome the possibility of further improvements. Thus, it is a mistake to think that human rights (or anything else) depends on a grounding in self-evident truths.

Human Rights and Human Well-Being is the second of two volumes on human rights. My first volume was Which Rights Should Be Universal? (published in 2005). Each volume stands on its own.
Learn more about Human Rights and Human Well-Being at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue