In the second half of the twentieth century a broad consensus emerged on framing judgment of governments against a moral code believed to be universal. Not without difficulties, today various attempts have been made to turn make human rights into an indispensable point of reference for the evaluation of the moral and juridical legitimacy of the global political order. Beyond the practical problems related to the development and implementation of human rights on both the local and global scale lie a number of unresolved theoretical issues. The course’s general purpose is to shed light on these issues and to provide knowledge of the main philosophical debates concerning how the concept of human rights should be understood, how human rights can be justified and the moral relevance of human rights. In particular, the course seeks to secure a solid understanding of the ties between human rights, social justice, the theory of recognition and liberal-democracy. During the course, students will be required to read texts, discuss them and develop personal opinions to exercise their learning, critical and communication skills. Developing an awareness of key human rights issues is important in professions such as education, health, law, social and cooperation and development work, both in the public and private sectors. At the end of the course, students will be able to use the acquired knowledge and understanding in a critical and conscious way by projecting themselves within the aforementioned operational spheres.
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The locution "human rights" denotes a field of action as well as a broad, inter-disciplinary, field of studies. In the first perspective, human rights are generally meant to express a set of minimum standards of conduct a State ought to meet in the treatment of individuals over whom it exercises its jurisdiction. Since the end of World War II international charters, conventions, covenants and declarations have been promulgated stating what basic rights individuals have. Notable efforts have been made to enforce adherence to those rights resulting in the creation of a system of multi-level jurisdiction through a number of international courts. Even though many see human rights as a Western, culturally biased, construction based upon an abstract and atomistic conception of the individual, the notion that for a State to promote and perform cruel and degrading acts is unjust, albeit for different reasons, has become increasingly popular globally. In the second perspective, descriptively human rights are said to be powers or properties belonging to all human beings in virtue of being human. Normatively that all human beings must be able to enjoy certain fundamental rights is a matter of global justice. Today not only theories of human rights, concerned with guiding action, but also theories about human rights, concerned with foundational questions, compete with one another. The course concentreates on the theory of autonomy, vulnerability, recognition and justice by Axel Honneth. There is general agreement about the fact that liberal-democratic societies are based on normative principles, which require legal provisions to ensure that governments do not violate anyone’s fundamental rights. Yet, partially on account of the complexity of the ongoing overlapping global processes of integration, deregulation, reform, and partially on account of the influence of anti-foundational critique (deconstruction; postmodernism; relativism), these widely accepted principles seem to have lost much of their original explanatory and prescriptive force. Contrary to those claiming that this problem consists of a mere temporal delay between philosophical investigation and practical application Honneth argues that more is needed than time, hope and persistence to transform theoretically developed principles of freedom and justice into guidelines for political action. In his view the normative principles at the heart of the human rights discourse are formulated in a manner that prevents us from deriving guidelines for political action. In particular, the course will examine the model of normative reconstruction that Honneth developed in neo-Hegelian fashion for the purpose of situating his own theory of justice as recognition in the analysis of the variety of historically determined institutional instances and practices that embody existentially significant claims to realization.


PART I – Historical background, methodological approaches, perspectives and major issues

- Introduction and course description; theory of human rights and its historical background; ontology and epistemology in the theory of human rights
- Freedom, justice as fairness and the ethics of discourse. Rawls, Habermas and the challenges of the anti-foundational critique
- Identity, authenticity, recognition and otherness

PART II – The theory of autonomy, vulnerability, recognition and justice by Axel Honneth

- Situating Honneth; Hegelian roots; the fabric of justice
- The struggle for recognition and the moral grammar of social conflicts
- The right to freedom and the social foundation of democratic ethical life
- The reasons for the existence of legal and moral freedom and their pathologies respectively
- Social freedom and the three registers of the ‘We’ of personal relationships
- Autonomy, vulnerability, recognition and justice and the market: the sphere of consumption, the labour market and environmental sustainability
- The ‘We’ of democratic will-formation; Organized self-realization: paradoxes of individualization
- The work of negativity; the ‘I’ in ‘We’: recognition as driving force of group formation; recognition and ideology

This course is taught in English.

Core Documentation

Honneth, A., Freedom’s Right. The Social Foundations of Democratic Life (2011), trans. J. Ganahl, Polity Press, Cambridge 2014 (ISBN-13: 978-0-7456-6943-4)

Ferrara, Alessandro. The Democratic Horizon. Hyperpluralism and the Renewal of Political Liberalism, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2014 (ISBN 978-1-107-57949-1)

Type of delivery of the course

Class proceedings consist of inter-active lectures based upon the use of the ‘Socratic method’. Each session introduces the students to a specific topic through expository and exegetical work. The teacher will draw attention to the key points in the texts on the basis of adequate contextualization, and to difficulties of interpretation. The teacher will also refer to the key issues in current debates through relevant examples, cases and comparisons. Each session, for which students have read materials previously assigned, requires active participation. Debating is an indispensable feature of class proceedings. The possible contribution by one or two qualified guest-lecturers will be sought and audio-video materials will be employed for support.

Type of evaluation

The oral final exam amounts to 40% of the final grade. Prior two written assignments will be duly scheduled. They amount to 30% of the final grade respectively.