Document Type : Research Article


PhD of Political Theory and Human Rights, Luiss Guido Carli University


My intention in this research is to focus on the idea of spiritual crisis in human rights arena.  The topic I shall be discussing concerns a basic set of issues dealing with the purpose of human rights, their moral foundation and their ultimate metaphysical ground. Simply put I shall be asking whether there is something special in human beings which entitles them to rights. Some arguments such as human agency, dignity and natural law tend to be quite abstract. It could therefore be tempting to assume that the issue, being of not much practical importance, is not relevant. But this would be a rush assumption because determining the foundation of human rights means determining the very legitimacy of human rights themselves in the international arena.  I will consider Ignatieff’s pragmatic point of view that can be summed up with a catch phrase: “without the Holocaust no Declaration, because of the Holocaust, no unconditional faith in the Declaration either” and Stackhouse’s religious one developed in Religion and Human Rights: a Theological Apologetic. My purpose is to analyse both Ignatieff’s view, that avoids contentious religious ground for human rights and offers a secular ground designed with the idea of human agency, and Max Stackhouse who, instead, defends the idea of a theological ethic as religious ground for human rights. First of all, through this analysis I aim at pointing out that while on the one hand the respect for our fellow human beings needs a reverential attitude and our commitment to protect our species needs to be sustained by some faith; on the other hand grounding human rights in religion is extremely dangerous and may imply violent clashes between different religious faiths. Secondly, I also aim at criticizing Ignatieff’s view because a defence of human rights as pragmatic instruments on pragmatic grounds seems to be too weak and human rights regime needs moral and metaphysical foundations to be universally recognized and implemented. Thirdly and ultimately, using Rawls’s concept of overlapping consensus I aim at showing the unecessity to agree upon a “single foundation”. A single foundation risks to be authoritative, whereas, what a human rights regime relies on is a plural foundations. If we arrive at respecting human rights on a plurality of grounds, then we are making them more broadly acceptable to people. If we publicly defend human rights for a plurality of reasons, we are rightly proving that there is no “proper” metaphysical foundation.
A good reason why we do not need to ground human rights in any particular metaphysics can be that they are already grounded in many metaphysics and can already derive sustenance from many sources. Hence, it would be worthwhile and wise to welcome a plurality of nonexclusive claims concerning the ways in which human rights can legitimately be grounded. Human agency, human dignity, equal creation are, for instance, some examples of different foundations that are not mutually exclusive.


  1. Books and Articles:

    1. Gutmann, A. (2003). Introduction to Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry, New York: Princton UP.
    2. Ignatieff, M. (2001). Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry, edited by A. Gutmann, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton UP.
    3. MacIntyre, Alasdair (1981). After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, Third Edition, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press
    4. Rawls, J. (1993). Political Liberalism, New York: Columbia University Press.
    5. Rawls, J. (1999). The Law of People, New Jersey: Harvard University Press.
    6. Stackhouse, M. L. (1991). Religion and Human Rights: a Theological Apologetic, New York: Princeton Theological Seminary and Stephen E. Healey.
    7. Appiah, K. A. (2001). “Grounding Human Rights”, in: Gutmann, Amy, Michael Ignatieff: Human rights as politics and idolatry, The University Center for Human Values Series, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, pp. 101–116.