Theses Doctoral

Human Responsibilities: A Relational Account of Human Rights

Susienka, Christine

What is and should be the scope of our appeals to human rights? To what desiderata should our theory of human rights adhere? On my proposal, human rights (i) are inherently relational, and (ii) play an important background role in our broader normative practices. Human rights derive from a foundational community relationship that human beings stand in with one another qua human beings. They are not, as naturalistic conceptions have it, grounded in the possession of any specific capacities such as high levels of rationality. They are also not, as political or practical conceptions claim, grounded in more specific relationships such as those between state and citizen. Unlike the current approaches, my relational approach offers both a non-derivative justification for recognizing all living human beings as human rights bearers and all human agents as duty bearers. Rights holder status and duty bearer status both have their source in this basic relationship shared by human beings. As such, neither precedes the other. The relationship gives rise to both. As an upshot, the view accounts for a variety of cases where we ordinarily do not invoke human rights even when their content is relevant, such as in cases of violent crimes or in interpersonal relationships. In turning to these examples, I consider not merely under what conditions human rights exist, but also under what conditions they ought to be invoked. Thus while they have a universal scope, we need not always appeal to them as human rights in order to fulfill them.
My inquiry into the grounds of human rights begins with a paradox that emerges for both naturalistic and political conceptions of human rights. Namely, even though human rights have their place in social and political relations, they are often conceived in ways that are blind to the basic role that these relations play in constituting them. While they inhere in individual human beings, the function and content of human rights is largely dependent on facts about human relationships. This paradox is particularly striking in the case of anti-discrimination rights, which many naturalistic views struggle to include as these rights derive not from any particular capacity, but from a comparative egalitarian premise. Instead, a relational view can point directly toward the damaging effects of severely unequal social attitudes–of failures to recognize one another as fellow human beings. Despite these differences, there are ‘natural’ and ‘political’ elements to my proposal as well, though both notions get reinterpreted. The natural, insofar as it figures in my account, is the relational framework in which individual human beings live their lives. The political consists in these overlapping networks of social relations. Thus the natural and the political coincide, and in effect my approach falls in neither of the two traditional camps. Instead, by focusing on the relationship between all human beings and conceiving of this relationship as both natural and social/political, I aim to formulate a genuinely new account of human rights.


  • thumnail for Susienka_columbia_0054D_14263.pdf Susienka_columbia_0054D_14263.pdf application/pdf 1.35 MB Download File

More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Vogt, Katja M.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 12, 2017