Masthead CMC Magazine / January 1, 1996

* Sexually Explicit Materials and the Internet, by Douglas Birsch

Alan Gewirth's Justification for the Belief in Human Rights

I summarize here the first part of Gewirth's reasoning where he justifies the rights to freedom and well-being. He feels that the other rights can be derived from these two, but there is not space to include that material.

Gewirth's justification of human rights begins with his contention that the common subject matter of everything morally significant is human action. Human action has a generic purposive feature: that persons act for purposes that they regard as good. Since agents always act for purposes they regard as good, they must, in so far as they are rational, regard the necessary conditions of such pursuit as good also. Gewirth claims that freedom and well-being are the generic features of action and the necessary conditions for the pursuit of human purposes through action. Thus, rational agents must regard freedom and well-being as necessary goods. 5

It is from this consideration of freedom and well-being as necessary goods that the justification of human rights proceeds. In order to derive rights from these goods, agents must employ what Gewirth calls the "dialectically necessary method," which establishes that agents have rights to freedom and well-being. Briefly, the agent reasons as follows:

  1. My freedom and well-being are necessary goods since they are necessary for action. Hence,

  2. I must have freedom and well-being in order to pursue by my actions any of the purposes I want and intend to pursue.

This claim (2) is the agent's assertion that he or she is entitled to freedom and well-being. From (2) it follows that (3), All other persons must at least refrain from removing or interfering with my freedom and well-being. Therefore, (2) and (3) establish the agent's claim that he or she has rights to freedom and well-being. ^6 Having "a right to freedom and well- being" means that the agent is entitled to these goods and other agents have correlative duties in connection with the agent's obtaining or not being restrained from obtaining the goods. 7

Gewirth continues this argument to show --that rights to freedom and well-being are actually human rights.

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