Digest of terms


the attribution of entitlements to a person or persons as belonging properly to them. Their source may derived from being granted in law by an agreed contract between the parties concerned, as in the case of borrowings and purchases, employment, education and health care. Commercial companies, local authorities, and governments all accept the responsibilities of meeting specified contractual obligations. An older tradition, sometimes referring to natural rights, has also existed, in which the rights are seen as inalienably human and perhaps, but not necessarily) God-given (natural law). Such is the 'Noachic Covenant' (deriving from Noah) tradition in Jewish ethics, which embraces all humanity and 'every living thing'. A broader range of human rights was affirmed by the international community in 1948, with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed by the UN. This has been incorporated into the laws of the European Community, and is in process of being internalised by its national governments. Globally the development of human rights discourse has been welcomed by a wide range of people experiencing discrimination of various forms, and used as a weapon in support of legal and social justice.

Not everyone supports this notion. Critics contend that advocates of human rights simply compile unrealistic wish-lists (holidays with pay?). More weightily, perhaps, for somewhat different reasons, a political ideology (e.g. communism) or a religious frame of reference (e.g. some manifestations of Islam) may give less priority to an individual's position than to that of the community to which s/he belongs (communitarianism). (Islamic declarations of human rights qualify them as needing to be in accordance with the shari'a, thereby, argue critics, undermining their value for women.)

Notions of rights have been both much invoked and much discussed. Those attributed to people as citizens of a particular state are civil rights; others much canvassed include women's rights (feminist ethics), minority rights, and group rights (liberalism). Particularly controversial to many are claims made on behalf of animal rights (speciesism): for example, which living entities are included (rats? fish? mosquitoes?) and how extensive are the rights accorded to them (food? conducive environment? survival?).

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