Volume 17, December 2012
Amartya Sen's Defense of Strong Human Rights
This essay presents a critical analysis of Sen's theory of human rights. I pay particular attention to his attack on Jeremy Bentham's denunciation of natural rights and the charge that preexisting universal rights are without foundation. I begin by providing some context for understanding Sen's approach to the debate about human rights. I then present a brief overview of rights theory and define the important terms, and also present Bentham's understanding of the 'foundational problem' and why he regards it as a dangerous problem. I offer a short overview of the human rights movement that covers its progress since Bentham's time. I then present a critique of Sen's defense of human rights and conclude that Sen's efforts to invalidate Bentham do not succeed. Bentham's contribution to the debate over human rights remains relevant.