In this paper I argue that the discourse theoretic account of human rights defended by Jürgen Habermas contains a fruitful tension that is obscured by its dominant tendency to identify rights with legal claims. This weakness in Habermas’s account becomes manifest when we examine how sweatshops diminish the secure enjoyment of subsistence, which Habermas himself (in recognition of the UDHR) recognizes as a human right. Discourse theories of human rights are unique in tying the legitimacy of human rights to democratic deliberation and consensus. So construed, their specific meaning and force is the outcome of historical political struggle. However, unlike other legal rights, they possess universal moral validity. In this paper I argue that this tension between the legal and moral aspects of human rights can be resolved if and only if human rights are conceived as moral aspirations and not simply as legal claims. In particular, I shall argue that there are two reasons why human rights must be understood as moral aspirations that function non-juridically: First, the basic human goods to which human rights provide secure access are determinable only in relation to basic human capabilities that are progressively revealed in the course of an indefinite (fully inclusive and universal) process of collective learning; second, the institutional impediments to enjoying human rights are cultural in nature and cannot be remedied by means of legal coercion.
© 2009 David Ingram.