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Essay: Justifying the Belief in Human Rights: A Social Epistemological Approach

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1. Introduction

Human rights are traditionally defined as claim-rights of an ethical nature, which invoke all parties other than the right-holder to fulfill a moral obligation to secure the right-holder’s access to certain freedoms. They are universal, and serve the general purpose of “[securing] minimal levels of decent and respectful treatment so that human beings can live a minimally good life”  for all of humanity.

However, the existence and enforcement of human rights has been undermined by justification that relies heavily on problematic non-inferential statements of value. In my IS, I will expound on this problem, before going on to show how justification derived through social epistemology can bring us closer to justifying the belief that human rights exist.

2. Traditional justification for “human rights exist”

Traditionally, philosophers rely on non-inferential statements of value in order to justify the existence of human rights. These statements, or first beliefs, fall into two categories: naturalism and legal positivism.

Naturalistic justification attributes justification to the humanity of the individual or certain features of his humanity. Michael Perry, a religious philosopher, relates human rights and humanity to God:

However, his use of God as a source of non-inferential statements of value does not fit into our pluralistic world; from the perspective of a non-believer, like an atheist, the supposed equality in human sacredness and thus justification for human rights would be non-existent, thus weakening his model significantly.

On the other hand, secular naturalistic accounts of justification derive their first beliefs from other features of humanity such as human agency, as proposed by Alan Gewirth. Through what he calls the Principle of Generic Consistency (PGC), Gewirth asserts that it is a logical commitment for humans as prospective purposive agents (PPA) to respect the human rights of others. A full explanation of the PGC can be found in Appendix I. A simplified summary of his argument would be :

However, we can easily argue that his model is unrealistic, for operating on the assumption that logical contradiction will sufficiently deter against violations of human rights. Gewirth has also been criticised for not considering the possibility of an agent perceiving people as “somehow less of an agent…than he himself” , allowing them to deny the universality of human rights.  Thus, a non-inferential belief of a secular naturalistic nature is inadequate in providing justification for the existence of human rights.

In contrast to naturalism, legal positivist accounts such as those of Charles Beitz are based on existing doctrines or laws on human rights, adopting the belief that the existence of the international human rights regime presupposes human rights as their non-inferential claim:

The problem with such an approach is that it makes it impossible to question or critique existing human rights laws. A non-inferential belief based in human right laws would lead to stagnation of the doctrine, as problems with current laws such as ethnocentrism would never receive a satisfactory resolution.

Hence, it can be said that attempts at justifying “human rights exist” have been weakened by their reliance on non-inferential claims of value that cannot fully account for the nature and current practice of human rights. The issue lies in the nature of non-inferential statements of values, which, in comparison to non-inferential statements of facts, do not appear to be derivable or correspond to an external reality, leading to problems of source reliability and verification. This is why I believe we should consider alternatives to non-inferential claims, such as social factors, as a source of justification for the belief “human rights exist”.

This idea originates from consensus-based justification of human rights, as advocated by Ari Kohen, who believes that the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is significant to justifying the existence of human rights, as it demonstrates “that everyone was able to agree upon and endorse a common foundation: the dignity of the human person” . To Kohen, the fact that there was a consensus by key representatives was evidence of recognition of the dignity of the human person and therefore, the existence of human rights.

Though it is not clear how the attainment of a consensus can serve as justification, I believe that his approach advances a new direction in justifying human rights by considering the social aspect in the creation of the UDHR as a possible source of justification. I will be exploring this through the application of social epistemology, which builds on traditional epistemology by taking into account the influence of social factors on the nature and construction of knowledge. Though my scope will be limited to that of the UDHR, I argue that given the UDHR’s status as a seminal document that has shaped contemporary international human rights, its influence is large enough for me to lay claim to a substantial portion of our understanding of human rights today.

3. Introduction to social epistemology

Collective social epistemology refers to knowledge construction of groups, on the basis that groups, as bodies, are capable of knowing as individuals do. It is taken that a group is able to form beliefs and derive justification and truth for that claim as a collective (as far as justification and truth are standards for knowledge).

Accounts of collective justification are mainly distinguished by whether they are deflationary, meaning collective justification is established as “nothing more than an aggregation” of justification of individual members’ beliefs, or inflationary, that justification of collective beliefs “float freely” from that of members’ beliefs .

3.1. Social process reliabilism (SPR)

Social process reliabilism, created by Alvin Goldman, is the pre-eminent model of a deflationary account. Goldman believes that a collective belief can be justified if a reliable belief-forming process produced it. In this case, the belief-forming process is defined as reliable only if “it has a high ratio of true-belief outputs total belief outputs for those cases in which inputs to the process are (all) true” . For collective belief B to be justified, two conditions must be met:

(A) If a group belief B in P is generated by aggregating a profile of member attitudes vis-à-vis P, belief B is justified only if all members’ beliefs in P belonging to that profile are themselves justified.

(B) A group belief G that is generated by the operation of a belief-aggregation process Π is justified only if (and to the degree that) Π has high conditional reliability.

The justification of B is thus dependent on the justification of individual members’ beliefs and the reliability of the belief aggregation process Π.

3.2. Joint acceptance account (JAA)

An example of an inflationary account would be Fredrick Schmitt’s joint acceptance account. The JAA justification of collective belief follows this model:

A group G is justified in believing p if and only if they have good reason to believe p, where

G has a reason r to believe p if and only if all members of G would properly express openly a willingness to accept r jointly as the group’s reason to believe p.

Using JAA, justification is obtained through a proper, open expression of willingness to accept a particular reason as justification, as opposed to through an aggregation of the justification of individual members’ beliefs.

3.3. Group epistemic agent account (GEAA)

The GEAA, created by Jennifer Lackey, combines the inflationary and deflationary approaches by imposing these conditions for justification:

(1) A group, G, justifiedly believes that p if and only if a significant percentage of the operative members of G (a) justifiedly believe that p, and (b) are such that adding together the bases of their justified beliefs that p yields a belief set that is coherent.

(2) Full disclosure of the evidence relevant to the proposition that p, accompanied by rational deliberation among the members of G in accordance with their individual and group epistemic normative requirements, would not result in further evidence that, when added to the bases of G’s members’ beliefs that p, yields a total belief set that fails to make probable that p.

Justification is thus premised on individual justification for the beliefs of a significant percentage of operative members, coherence of these justifications in a belief set, and that perfect access to information regarding the collective belief has not generated enough evidence to debilitate it.

4. Voting on the UDHR

Debate on the declaration was held during the Plenary Session of the General Assembly on December 10, 1948. In the final voting procedure, the declaration was adopted without objection, with a vote of 48 to 0 and 8 abstentions from the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR), the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (UKSSR), Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Poland, Saudi Arabia, and South Africa.

The abstentions were all results of the countries’ disagreement with specific clauses of the declaration, with the Communist bloc (BSSR, USSR, UKSSR, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Poland) believing that the UDHR did not go far enough in condemning Nazism and fascism by allowing for full freedom of speech and association in Articles 19 and 20. For Saudi Arabia, the abstention was motivated by her objection to the “freedom of religion” clause in Article 18, which she claimed were in violation of Islamic beliefs. South Africa’s abstention was explained as motivated by the government’s defense of its system of apartheid, which was in clear violation of multiple clauses of the declaration.

5. Evaluating the justification for “human rights exist” using social epistemology

In applying social epistemology to the claim “human rights exist”, I will be looking specifically at the voting procedure in the adoption of the UDHR, in order to further examine the implications of Kohen’s consensus approach.

By voting for the adoption of the declaration, I will take it that member states in the General Assembly were either affirming or presupposing the belief that human rights exists, but that its justification is dependent on the social process of voting. My use of the terms “group” and “collective” as nouns will refer to the United Nations General Assembly, while the belief that I seek to justify is the claim “human rights exist”.

5.1. Applying SPR

As the (A) condition reverts back to individual justification through non-inferential claims of value, I will be focusing on (B). In this case, the voting procedure to adopt the UDHR will be taken as the belief-aggregation process Π. In order to assess the reliability of the voting process, I will apply the mathematical rationale of the Condorcet Jury Theorem (CJT), which Goldman applies to majoritarian belief aggregation processes. Based on the CJT, assuming the probability of each member state voting for the true belief on whether or not the UDHR should be adopted is more than ½, the General Assembly as a collective has a higher probability of attaining a true belief through the voting process, as voting is a majoritarian belief aggregation process. (+8) Maintaining the assumption regarding the value of the probability of member states voting for the truth, the voting process is thus considered to be reliable, and (B) is fulfilled. However, as (A) cannot be evaluated, collective belief that “human rights exist” cannot be considered justified.

In evaluation, I would argue that Goldman’s incorporation of the standard of reliability for belief-aggregation processes is unsuitable for human rights, as it entails an evaluation of the truth of the input (individual beliefs). Because human rights impose a normative moral standard, it is difficult or, as some might propose, impossible to determine the truth of human rights. Though generalisations such as the CJT can be made for categories of belief aggregation processes, SPR still requires a fulfilment of a condition or certain assumptions to be made about the truth of the individual beliefs: in this case, the assumption that the probability of each member state voting for the true belief was more than ½ had to be made in order to assess the reliability of the process.

5.2. Applying JAA

Working backwards, in the context of adopting the UDHR, G is taken to be the General Assembly while p is taken to be the belief “human rights exist”. The first claim would thus be:

The General Assembly is justified in believing that human rights exist if and only if they have good reason to believe that human rights exist.

However, the open expression of willingness comes in the form of voting, yet r, the group’s reason to believe p, cannot be determined from how the member states voted, as there is no evidence of there having been a common endorsement of a reason to believe in the existence of human rights.

Additionally, given that the member states were voting on whether or not to adopt the UDHR, there arises the question of whether p should be “they should adopt the UDHR” instead of “human rights exist”. The account would then be:

The General Assembly is justified in believing that they should adopt the UDHR if and only if they have good reason to believe that they should adopt the UDHR.

r can be argued to be “human rights exist”, if we were to assume that the act of voting for the adoption of the UDHR in fact presupposes or affirms the existence of human rights. However, the same problem mentioned above occurs, in that the consensus achieved through voting does not illustrate a joint acceptance of one reason as r. A more fundamental issue is the fact that this approach would not justify the claim “human rights exist”, instead justifying the claim “they should adopt the UDHR”.

The contention lies in what Schmitt requires by “proper and open expression of willingness to accept r as joint reason”. Given the context of the UN, for member states to literally express their acceptance for something as joint reason for their beliefs would be impossible. In the voting procedure, a vote for the adoption does not express any acceptance of a joint reason for adopting the UDHR, only that the member state believes the General Assembly should adopt the UDHR. Moreover, it is highly likely that the member states did not adopt a joint reason in the voting procedure, and in fact maintained their own interests in the voting procedure, as evidenced by the 8 abstentions, each of which were motivated by the countries’ disagreement with certain clauses of the UDHR.

5.3. Applying GEAA

The first condition falls back on non-inferential claims of value, which I have previously explained to be problematic. Hence, I will not elaborate on it. However, it is worth noting that the focus of GEAA is on the individual justification of significant operative members, as opposed to that of all members. The addition of this particular clause attempts to account for the dynamics in a collective, which could potentially be useful when analysing bloc voting as often practiced in the General Assembly.

The second condition considers the value of disagreement, by examining the substantiality of objections to the collective belief. For this, we can assume the General Assembly to have received full disclosure of evidence relevant to the UDHR, given that it was involved at multiple stages throughout the drafting process. We can also assume with confidence that member states casted their votes after conducting “rational deliberation”, as member states would have seriously considered the interests of their countries before voting, though whether it was done “in accordance with individual and group epistemic norms” remains ambiguous. Given that the result of rational deliberation was no objections and 8 abstentions that did not cohere in a belief set, opposition to the collective belief is considered insignificant, and justification of the collective belief is strengthened. However, when considered jointly with the first condition, the collective belief “human rights exist’ remains unjustified.

5. Conclusion

The claim “human rights exist” remains unjustified, both in terms of traditional and social epistemology. Nonetheless, I believe that my attempt at social epistemology offers a meaningful alternative to problematic, non-inferential claims that traditional epistemology is wont to fall back on.

Despite both SPR and GEAA containing conditions that revert back to individual justification, I would argue that there are elements of utility to social epistemology. The three accounts allowed us to consider the influence of collectivity on the justification of the belief “human rights exist”, through an evaluation of the reliability of voting as a belief-aggregation process (SPR),  “open expressions” of joint reasons (JAA), and the influence of group dynamics and disagreement (GEAA). With further refinement, I believe that this utility can be extended to include the impact on justification of factors such as political will, which would undoubtedly have influenced the adoption of the UDHR.

Social epistemology allows us to derive justification and epistemic standards from elements that, from a practical standpoint, have an influence on knowledge construction, but traditional individualistic epistemology does not account for. As such, I believe that as social epistemology advances, it has the potential to give us new insights into justification and epistemic standards, not just for the existence of human rights, but perhaps for other claims of ethics as well. (2917)


Traditional justification of human rights

Brown, Chris. “Universal human rights: A critique.” The International Journal of Human Rights. 1, no. 2 (Summer 1997): 41- 65. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13642989708406666.

Chilton, Adam S. Harvard Human Rights Journal 25 (2012): 237-39. http://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=8190&context=journal_articles.

Donnelly, Jack. Human Rights Quarterly 5, no. 3 (August 1983): 376-379. http://www.jstor.org/stable/762030.

Fagan, Andrew. “Human Rights.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed May 8, 2017. http://www.iep.utm.edu/hum-rts/.

Forst, Rainer. “The Justification of Human Rights and the Basic Right to Justification: A Reflexive Approach.” Ethics 120, no. 4 (July 2010): 711-740. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/653434.

Gregg, Benjamin. Perspectives on Politics 6, no. 2 (2008): 373-74. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20446711.

Gewirth, Alan. “The Epistemology of Human Rights.” Social Philosophy and Policy 1, no. 2 (1984): 1-24. doi: 10.1018/S0265052500003836.

Gordon, John-Stewart. “Human Rights.” Oxford Bibliographies, last modified March 31, 2016. doi:10.1093/OBO/9780195396577-0239.

Hardwick, Nicola-Ann. “Theoretically Justifying Human Rights: A Critical Analysis.” Phd. Diss, University of London, 2012.

Ivic, Sanja. “Dynamic nature of human rights: Rawls’s critique of moral universalism.” Trans/Form/Ação [online] 33, no. 2 (2010): 223-259. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1590/S0101-31732010000200013.

Kohen, Ari. Perspectives on Politics 8, no. 1 (March 2010): 346-347. doi: 10.1017/S1537592709993057.

Kohen, Ari. “The Possibility of Secular Human Rights: Alan Gewirth and the Principle of Generic Consistency.” Human Rights Review 7, no. 1 (October 2005): 49-75. doi: 10.1007/s12142-005-1002-3.

Mitchell, Matthew S. “Justifying Human Rights: Perry, Kohen and the Overlapping Consensus.” Journal of Human Rights 9: no. 3 (2010): 363-372. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14754835.2010.501282.

Nickel, James. “Human Rights.” In Edward N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2017 Edition). https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2017/entries/rights-human/.

Sen, Amartya. “Elements of a Theory of Human Rights.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 32: no. 4 (Fall 2004): 315-356. http://www.mit.edu/~shaslang/mprg/asenETHR.pdf

Social epistemology

Anderson, Elizabeth. “The Social Epistemology of Morality: Learning from the Forgotten History of the Abolition of Slavery.” In Michael S. Brady and Miranda Fricker (ed.), The Epistemic Life of Groups: Essays in the Epistemology of Collectives (2016): 75-94. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gilbert, Margaret P. “Remarks on collective belief.” In Frederick Schmitt (ed.), Socializing Epistemology: The Social Dimensions of Knowledge (1994): 235-256. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield.

Goldman, Alvin I. “Social Epistemology, Interests, and Truth.” Philosophical Topics 23, no. 1 (Spring 1995): 171-187. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43154199.

Goldman, Alvin I. “Social Process Reliabilism: Solving Justification Problems in Collective Epistemology.” In Jennifer Lackey (ed.), Essays in Collective Epistemology (2014): 11-41. doi: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199665792.003.0002.

Goldman, Alvin and Blanchard, Thomas. “Social Epistemology.” In Edward N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition). https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/epistemology-social/.

Goldman, Alvin and Blanchard, Thomas. “Social Epistemology.” Oxford Bibliographies, last modified October 25 2012. doi:10.1093/OBO/9780195396577-0088

Kusch, Martin. “HPS: Social epistemology.” Accessed May 1, 2017. http://www.sites.hps.cam.ac.uk/research/se.html.

Norman, Andrew P. Ethics 106, no. 3 (April 1996): 663-665. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2382288.

Phillips, Patrick J. J. Informal Logic 19, no. 2 & 3 (1999): 215-217. https://ojs.uwindsor.ca/ojs/leddy/index.php/informal_logic/article/viewFile/2330/1773.

Schmitt, Frederick. “The Justification of Group Beliefs.” In Frederick Schmitt (ed.), Socializing Epistemology: The Social Dimensions of Knowledge (1994): 257-287. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield.

Tollefsen, Deborah P. Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews (May 25, 2015). http://ndpr.nd.edu/news/essays-in-collective-epistemology/

Tuomela, Raimo. “Group Knowledge Analysed.” Episteme 1, no. 2 (2004): 109-127. doi: 10.3366/epi.2004.1.2.109.

Tuomela, Raima. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 57, no. 3 (Sep 1997): 725-729. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2953767.

Information on Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Colombia University. “Drafting History.” Accessed August 20, 2017. http://ccnmtl.columbia.edu/projects/mmt/udhr/udhr_general/drafting_history_10.html

Codification Division, Office of Legal Affairs. “Chapter IV: Article 18 – Charter of the United Nations.” Last modified August 23, 2016. http://legal.un.org/repertory/art18.shtml.

Appendix A: Alan Gewirth’s Principle of Generic Consistency

1. “I do X for purpose or end E”

2. “E is good” – the kind of goodness attributed here may not be moral goodness; the criterion varies with whatever purpose E the agent may have in doing X e.g. good for something¬

a. In the context of action, the fact-value distinction is already bridged, because by the very fact of engaging in the action, every agent must implicitly accept for himself a certain value-judgement about the value or goodness of the purposes for which he acts.

3. “I must have freedom and well-being”

a. These are considered as necessary conditions of action, or what Gewirth calls “well-being”, which consists in having the various substantive conditions and abilities that are required if a person is to act with general chances of success in achieving the purpose.

4. “I have rights to freedom and well-being”

a. To deny this, one would have to deny that people shouldn’t interfere with his freedom and wellbeing. This translates to: people may (it is permissible that they) remove or interfere with his freedom and well-being, and therefore accept that “I may not have freedom and well-being”, which contradicts 3. Therefore 4 follows from 3.

5. “I have rights to freedom and well-being because I am a prospective purposive agent.”

a. To list any other condition R other than being “a prospective purposive agent” as a sufficient and necessary justifying condition would be saying:

“I have rights to freedom and well-being only because I am R.”

This would lead to a contradiction as he would be saying, if he did not have R, he would not have the generic rights, so he would have to accept that he “does not have rights to freedom and well-being”. But as we saw before in 4, he must hold that he has rights to freedom and well-being. So he must accept that simply being a prospective purposive agent is a sufficient as well as a necessary justifying condition of his having freedom and well-being.

6. “All prospective purposive agents have rights to freedom and well-being.”

a. Principle of universalization: if predicate P belongs to subject S because S has a quality Q, then all S with quality Q will have predicate P.

b. It is here that we move from prudential to moral rights.

c. The original agent is now logically committed to respecting the interests of all other persons with regard to their also having the necessary goods or conditions or actions.

7. “I ought to act in accord with the generic rights of my recipients as well as of myself.” (PGC) (434 words)

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