Human Rights and Human Well-being

ISBN : 9780195173482

William Talbott
432 Pages
182 x 242 mm
Pub date
Dec 2010
Oxford Political Philosophy
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In the last half of the twentieth century, legalized segregation ended in the southern United States, apartheid ended in South Africa, women in many parts of the world came to be recognized as having equal rights with men, persons with disabilities came to be recognized as having rights to develop and exercise their human capabilities, colonial peoples' rights of self-determination were recognized, and rights of gays and lesbians have begun to be recognized. It is hard not to see these developments as examples of real moral progress. But what is moral progress? In this book, William Talbott offers a surprising answer to that question. He proposes a consequentialist meta-theoretical principle of moral and legal progress, the "main principle", to explain why these changes are examples of moral and legal progress. On Talbott's account, improvements to our moral or legal practices are changes that, when evaluated as a practice, contribute to equitably promoting well-being. Talbott uses the main principle to explain why almost all the substantive moral norms and principles used in moral or legal reasoning have exceptions and why it is almost inevitable that, no matter how much we improve them, there will always be more exceptions. This explanation enables Talbott to propose a new, non-skeptical understanding of what has been called the "naturalistic fallacy". Talbott uses the main principle to complete the project begun in his 2005 book of identifying the human rights that should be universal-that is, legally guaranteed in all human societies. Talbott identifies a list of fourteen robust, inalienable human rights. Talbott contrasts his consequentialist (though not utilitarian) account with many of the most influential nonconsequentialist accounts of morality and justice in the philosophical literature, including those of Ronald Dworkin, Jurgen Habermas, Martha Nussbaum, Phillip Pettit, John Rawls, T.M. Scanlon, Amartya Sen, and Judith Thomson. "I found [Talbott's book] fascinating, highly original, and full of striking insights. It is also very engagingly written and a pleasure to read."- Elizabeth Ashord, The University of St. Andrews "Talbott's book adds a distinctive voice to the debate about the foundations of human rights: He develops a systematic moral epistemology to show that our changing understanding of human rights is a central example of the more general phenomenon of moral progress." - Allen Buchanan, Duke University "Exceptions to moral rules are paradoxically one of the most normal features of morality, as Talbott rightly but unusually makes clear. It would be a primitive morality that did not somehow provide for exceptions to rules. Imaginatively modeling his account of moral progress on reference class logic, Talbott suggests that exceptions are not merely a headache but the very engines of moral progress, thereby offering a rare and fascinating account of moral change." - Henry Shue, Centre for International Studies, Oxford


1. The Consequentialist Project for Human Rights
2. . Exceptions to Libertarian Natural Rights
3. The Main Principle
4. What is Well-Being? What is Equity?
5. The Two Deepest Mysteries in Moral Philosophy
6. Security Rights
7. Epistemological Foundations for the Priority of Autonomy Rights
8. The Millian Epistemological Argument for Autonomy Rights
9. Property Rights, Contract Rights, and Other Economic Rights
10. Democratic Rights
11. Equity Rights
12. The Most Reliable Judgment Standard for Weak Paternalism
13. Liberty Rights and Privacy Rights
14. Clarifications and Responses to Objections
15. Conclusion

About the author: 

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. This is the second of two volumes on human rights. The first was Which Rights Should Be Universal? (OUP, 2005).

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