Document Type : Research Article


Professor of Philosophy, University of Ottawa


A person’s identity is their sense of who and what they are, of who stands in significant relations to them, and of what is valuable to them. This is inevitably very broad, an immediate implication of which is that the concept of identity taken alone cannot do significant normative work. In some cases a person’s identity is bound up with the evil that they do or wish to do, and cannot thereby give them any right to do it. In other cases very powerful elements of a person’s identity – such as their attachment to loved ones – is certainly related to important rights, but it is not entirely clear that one needs the concept of identity to explicate or justify these rights; the deep involvement of their identity is arguably a byproduct of other important values in these cases (such as love), and those values can do the grounding work of the rights by themselves and more simply and clearly.
Nevertheless, when suitably qualified, a person’s identity is central to accounting for important political rights. These ranges from rights to participate in cultural practices of one’s group, which sometimes implies duties on governments to support minorities threatened with extinction, to – at the outer limit – rights to arrange political administration.
These rights are connected to both autonomy and fairness. Cultural rights are often taken either to be opposed to autonomy, or at best instrumental to personal autonomy (by providing ‘options’), but in fact, the ideal of autonomy, expressed by Mill as being the author of one’s life, requires that one be in control of significant aspects of one’s identity. Significant aspects of one’s identity are collectively determined within a culture. Cultures are not static, and their development is particularly affected by political boundaries. A fundamental right of autonomy implies, therefore, that groups be allowed, within reasonable constraints of general feasibility and stability, to arrange political boundaries to enhance their control over their identity. This shows the fundamental link between individual and collective ‘self-determination’. The right of collective self-determination is also based on fairness, since cultural majorities in existing states enjoy advantages that minorities frequently lack.
Spelling out the basis of identitarian rights in autonomy contributes to determining both the upper and lower limits of this and other rights of universal scope. First, it is important to distinguish between two senses of ‘human right’. The first sense is a right that a person has simply in virtue of being a person, or simply by being a human being. A second sense is a right of cosmopolitan scope. Every right in the first sense is a right in the second sense but not vice versa. That is, every right that people have merely in virtue of being people is a right that everyone has. But not every right that everyone has (and should have) is a right that they have merely in virtue of being a human or a person. Some rights that everyone has or should have today people could not have had in the past because institutional, economic, technological or other prerequisites were lacking. Some that everyone has today they may not have in the future because other values will have superseded them in a different institutional, economic, or technological setting.

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