Amartya Sen: what is a human right?

I do not usually go for political arguments that talk about rights, but I also do not recoil in anger when people make them. I understand discussion of rights is a common language people have, and it helps many people express their ideas. One of the key questions in that discussion of course is what is a human right? I have mentioned previously that I like Amartya Sen’s treatment of that question, and so I figured I should just lay out that treatment for the curious. In Chapter 17 of his book The Idea of Justice, Sen writes:

The ‘existence’ of human rights is obviously not like the existence of, say, Big Ben in the middle of London. Nor is it like the existence of a legislated law in the statute book. Proclamations of human rights, even though stated in the form of recognizing the existence of things that are called human rights, are really strong ethical pronouncements as to what should be done. They demand acknowledgement of imperatives and indicate that something needs to be done for the realization of these recognized freedoms that are identified through these rights.


Thus understood, an assertion of a human right (for example in the form: ‘this freedom is important and we must seriously consider what we should do to help each other realize it’) can indeed be compared with other ethical proclamations, such as ‘happiness is important’, or ‘autonomy matters’, or ‘personal liberties must be preserved’. The question, ‘Are there really such things as human rights?’ is thus comparable to asking, ‘Is happiness really important?’ or “Does autonomy or liberty really matter?’

A footnote in this section is also useful for understanding Sen’s view:

[…] it is important here to see that the force of the assertion about the existence of human rights lies in the recognition of some important freedoms that, it is claimed, should be respected, and correspondingly in the acceptance of obligations by the society, in one way or another, to support and promote these freedoms.

So Sen’s view here is refreshingly realistic. He basically argues that an assertion about the existence of a right is not a metaphysical claim or a claim of moral certainty on the point: it is just a strong way of making a normative claim. So when someone says “health care is a right,” they are really saying in a stronger voice something like “health care is really important, everyone should have the freedom to access it, and we should ensure as a society that they do.” It is stated in terms of recognizing the existence of a right, but it’s really just a basic moral claim about what we ought to do.

As might be obvious, Sen does not think rights talk by itself gets you very far. If claiming that a certain right exists is really just a strong moral claim that we should socially guarantee a certain freedom, such a claim will require a separate justification as to why. Many human rights advocates think that once they have asserted something is a right, there is nothing else to the argument. Sen’s view is that claiming something as a right is simply a moral conclusion that requires background reasoning and reflection to reach.

Importantly, the background reasoning and reflection required for a conclusion about rights is no different than the reasoning and reflection required to reach similar conclusions in other moral systems that avoid talking about rights. In that sense, appeals to rights are not an inferior form of moral reasoning and theorizing, as it is often treated in more theory-heavy circles.