Ethical Theory and Moral Practice

, Volume 15, Issue 2, pp 143–157 | Cite as

Justifying Feasibility Constraints on Human Rights

  • Henning Hahn


It is a crucial question whether practicalities should have an impact in developing an applicable theory of human rights—and if, how (far) such constraints can be justified. In the course of the non-ideal turn of today’s political philosophy, any entitlements (and social entitlements in particular) stand under the proviso of practical feasibility. It would, after all, be unreasonable to demand something which is, under the given political and economic circumstances, unachievable. Thus, many theorist—particularly those belonging to the liberal camp—begin to question the very idea of social human rights on grounds of practical infeasibility. This new minimalism about human rights motivates an immanent critique arguing that even if we were to proceed from a liberal framework, we would still wind up with a justification of the full list of social human rights. In the first part of this article, I will present the central positions of the debate presented by Amartya Sen, Maurice Cranston and Pablo Gilabert. Initially arguing that a minimalism of human rights on grounds of practical infeasibility alone proves unjustifiable, however, I shall open up two further perspectives, which allow practical infeasibilities to become normatively determinate. Discussing contributions by James Griffin and Charles Beitz, I will defend the thesis that certain feasibility constraints on (social) human rights can be justified on the condition that they are grounded either in a normative idea of the appropriate implementation of these rights or in reflection of the practical function of a theory of human rights.


Human rights Social human rights Feasibility Beitz Non-ideal theory 



In 2010, I had the opportunity to present earlier versions of this paper at the Global Ethics Colloquia in Kassel, at the Third Biennial Conference of the International Global Ethics Association (IGEA) in Bristol, at the workshop on “Current Developments in Practical Philosophy” in Ujué (Spain), at the Workshop on “The Diversity of Human Rights” at the Inter University Center in Dubrovnik, and at the Working Group in Moral Philosophy at Yale. I am grateful to the participants of these talks for many critical comments and helpful suggestions. I also want to thank the Fritz Thyssen Foundation for generously supporting my research and, last but not least, both reviewers of the journal for asking me to clarify my argument in some decisive respects.


  1. Beitz C (2009) The idea of human rights. Oxford University Press, OxfordCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Buchanan A (2000) Rawls’s law of peoples: rules for a vanished Westphalian world. Ethics 110:697–721CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Buchanan A (2004) Justice, legitimacy, and self-determination. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  4. Cohen J (2004) Minimalism about human rights: the most we can hope for? J Polit Philos 12:190–213CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Cranston M (2001/1967) Human rights, real and supposed. In: Hayden P (ed) The philosophy of human rights. Paragon, St. Paul, pp 163–173Google Scholar
  6. Feinberg J (1973) Social philosophy. Prentice Hall, Englewood CliffsGoogle Scholar
  7. Geuss R (2008) Philosophy and real politics. Princeton University Press, PrincetonGoogle Scholar
  8. Gilabert P (2008) The feasibility of basic socioeconomic human rights. Phil Q 59:659–681CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Griffin J (2000) Welfare rights. J Ethics 4:27–43CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Griffin J (2008) On human rights. Oxford University Press, OxfordCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Miller D (1995) On nationality. Clarendon, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  12. Miller D (2000) Citizenship and national identity. Polity, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  13. Nussbaum M (2007) Frontiers of justice. Disability, nationality, species membership. Harvard University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  14. O’Neill O (2000) Bounds of justice. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Pogge T (2002) World poverty and human rights. Polity, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  16. Rawls J (1999) The law of peoples. Harvard University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  17. Sen A (2004) Elements of a theory of human rights. Philos Publ Aff 32:315–356CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Shue H (1996) Basic rights. Subsistence, affluence and US foreign policy, 2nd edn. Princeton University Press, PrincetonGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institut für PhilosophieUniversität KasselKasselGermany

Personalised recommendations