Moral Sentiment and the Politics of Human Rights


by Sharon Krause

Why do we have human rights and why are we obligated to respect them? This question provokes a certain amount of anxiety among theorists of human rights today. The difficulties of justifying human rights in the context of what one commentator has called “a world of difference” have helped to motivate the field’s turn to the political in recent years. [1] Whereas philosophers and political theorists once treated human rights as applied universal ideals grounded in comprehensive moral doctrines, the dominant discourse now regards them as “political not metaphysical”. [2] 

The political approach aims to avoid resting human rights claims on controversial moral foundations, and it (not unreasonably) sees the task of justifying human rights as intrinsically linked to such foundations. Because of this link, efforts to justify human rights frequently run up against charges of cultural imperialism. [3] Yet while it is surely a good idea to refrain from exercising cultural imperialism, we cannot entirely avoid the matter of justification in human rights discourse. For we will never be able to agree on difficult questions of application if we cannot articulate why we have human rights and why we are bound to respect them. What we need is an account of the grounds of human rights that can stand firm in our world of difference.

Moral sentiment theory – the theory of judgment and deliberation found in a range of 18th-century thinkers but articulated most powerfully by David Hume – offers some valuable resources in this regard. It can be developed to suggest a non-foundationalist basis for international human rights today, one that justifies human rights with reference to the faculty of empathy and the fact of interdependence.

On the moral sentiment view I develop here, there is one fundamental and fully universal human right, the right to have one’s concerns count with others’, to be recognized as a moral equal whose interests and perspective are owed inclusion in the generalized standpoint of moral sentiment. Whatever more specific slate(s) of human rights may reasonably be derived from this basic right will reflect the deliberative engagements – and the moral sentiments – of those subject to them. And because this justification of human rights is rooted in common human sentiments rather than independent moral principles, it builds in motivational efficacy. It shows respect for human rights to be consonant with our own common concerns rather than something that threatens our interests and so demands altruism. Moral sentiment theory thus helps us to address two important challenges of human rights today: justification and compliance. In what follows, I begin with a brief account of moral sentiment theory as it was developed by Hume. I then sketch – again, very briefly – how the theory of moral sentiment might be extended to help us justify and motivate human rights today.

Moral Sentiment

Hume’s account of moral sentiment rests on two core claims. The first is that the source of our normative standards is to be found in common human concerns. Morality is a practical phenomenon, a mechanism for social coordination meant to make human lives go better, and its rules reflect the things that matter to us – not anything loftier or more elevated than this. The second claim is that we identify what concerns are common – and so arrive at moral norms – through an exercise of reflective feeling that builds on the sympathetic communication of sentiments. Not all feelings carry normative weight, of course. Feelings that remain strictly personal can motivate our actions but they do not generate obligations (with the implicit claim to general applicability that obligations entail) or illuminate the concepts of right and wrong.

Moral sentiment is therefore a distinctive kind of feeling. It arises through a form of perspective-taking in which we come to experience, through the exercise of sympathetic imagination, the sentiments of those affected by a particular action or other object of evaluation. This generalized standpoint builds on the intersubjective communication of feeling that comes naturally to us as social creatures, via the faculty that Hume called sympathy and that today we typically call empathy. Human beings are so constituted as to resonate with the pleasures and pains of others. This resonance can be obstructed by all kinds of intervening variables – above all, by our personal attachments and our prejudices – but it is a common and pervasive part of human experience.

Moreover, because we are by nature interdependent we need to coordinate our actions and expectations with those of others. And social coordination would be impossible if all our judgments were based on a narrowly particularistic perspective; we need general standards of right and wrong. As Hume puts it, “when we form our judgments of persons, merely from the tendency of their characters to our own benefit, or to that of our friends, we find so many contradictions to our sentiments in society and conversation, and such an uncertainty from the incessant changes of our situation, that we seek some other standard of merit and demerit, which may not admit of so great variation.” [4] So if empathy makes the communication of sentiments possible, the fact of interdependence provides a motive for making use of empathy to arrive at a generalized standpoint.

To exercise moral judgment is therefore to take up an evaluative perspective that filters out the distorting effects of self-interest and personal prejudice even as it engages affective modes of consciousness. When a character or an action “is considered in general, without reference to our particular interest,” Hume says, this causes “such a feeling or sentiment, as denominates it morally good or evil.” [5] Specifically, in judging an action or quality of character, empathy conveys to us the pleasure or pain that the object generates for the person who possesses it and those affected by it. Pleasure stimulates a positive affective response, or approval; pain stimulates aversion, or disapproval.

We must, of course, take care that our judgments are shaped only by sentiments that can themselves be endorsed from within a suitably structured generalized standpoint. In registering the pleasures and pains of those affected, in other words, we should ask about their merit: Can the character traits and the norms that inform these sentiments themselves be endorsed from within a perspective of impartial feeling? And do the sentiments reflect an accurate understanding of the facts in play? Moral sentiment allows for – in fact requires – the critical evaluation of its own sources through the iterative, reflective stance of the generalized standpoint. The exercise of moral sentiment thus enables us to arrive at impersonal assessments of right and wrong on the basis of a reflective, impartial set of feelings. What we ought to do is what can be endorsed from within this generalized standpoint. Normativity is intersubjective in this sense for we could not know what we ought to do if we were unable to feel with others. [6]

Human Rights

The moral sentiment approach suggests a particular kind of justification for human rights today. It is a non-foundationalist justification in the sense that it does not rest on independent moral principles, or mysterious moral entities, or higher powers. It yields one basic right that is fully universal, the right to have one’s concerns count with others, to be recognized as a moral equal whose interests and perspective are owed inclusion in the generalized standpoint of moral sentiment. This right is generated partly through the exercise of empathy, which enables us to identify in others as well as ourselves the desire to have our concerns count and the distinctive pain that comes from not counting. Not many things generalize to all of humanity, but surely these sentiments do. Empathetic identification with them gives us grounds to approve a universal entitlement, or right, to equal consideration.

Moreover, insofar as norms arise from the reflective sentiments of human beings, we are collectively the sources of the norms that govern us. In this sense, human beings are morally self-governing. This faculty of self-governance differs from Kantian autonomy in being intersubjectively rather than individually sustained, and in resting on empathy and reflective concern rather than on pure practical reason. But similar implications flow from it. In particular, it suggests that we share a common status as the collective sources of normativity and therefore that the basic moral standing of persons is equivalent. And the human capacity for collective norm generation gives rise to a distinctive form of suffering in the face of moral exclusion. Empathy with the pain that self-governing beings feel when they are treated as the mere means to the satisfaction of others’ ends, or denied consideration as participants in the collective generation of norms, buttresses the moral sentiment of disapproval for this exclusion and helps to justify the right to equal consideration.

We can expect all persons to affirm this right to the extent that their capacity for empathy is intact and unobstructed by partiality and prejudice. Yet it is natural for people to feel more powerfully for their nearest and dearest, so why should we expect them to cultivate a capacity for empathy that is free of partiality and prejudice? Hume’s answer, remember, is that ignorance of the sentiments of others, or an overly narrow faculty of empathy, impedes impartial judgment and leads us into contradictions with ourselves and conflict with others. Because we depend on others and must coordinate our actions with them, we need to arrive at general norms of conduct. In order for these norms to foster social coordination reliably, they must answer to common human concerns, or be consonant with the shared interests of those who are bound by them.

Identifying the kinds of norms that can attract general allegiance requires a general standpoint, the exercise of impartial judgment in which the endorsable sentiments of all are given consideration. Satisfying our own basic interest in social coordination therefore entails attending with equal consideration to the sentiments of others. And since we cannot identify in advance those with whom we may need to coordinate in the future, we should take as broad a view as possible of the sentiments of others, extending our empathetic engagement to incorporate as many endorsable perspectives into our judgments as we can.

To be sure, factors such as distance and inequalities of power can make us lose sight of our interdependence and the prudential value of an extensive empathy. In the U.S., for instance, the rich are able to insulate themselves geographically from the poor, and their economic resources foster the feeling of independence, which makes it easy for the rich to exclude the poor from their sphere of concern. Likewise, developed nations seem to be able to accomplish their purposes without much consideration for the interests and perspectives of developing countries. Even if we cannot always predict whose help we may need, it seems, we can predict that, given territorial distances and existing inequalities of power, certain individuals or groups are not likely to be very relevant. Or can we?

Hobbes’s insight that even the weak often have strength enough to impede the purposes of the powerful suggests that those who are ostensibly dominant enough to ignore the sentiments of others do so at their own peril. Given the fact of our interdependence, there are real costs associated with failures of moral concern. It is true that there are also costs associated with exercising moral concern and extending our empathy. Even if inclusivity is a condition of successful social coordination over the long term, and therefore in our interest, it may be at odds with other interests that we have in the short term. Why should the former outweigh the latter? The answer is that in view of our interdependence, social coordination is the necessary condition for the satisfaction of whatever other, more particular interests we may have over time. Consequently, we share a common, overriding interest in the extended empathy that, by generating and sustaining reliable general norms, enables social coordination. So whoever we are, we cannot afford over the long term to exclude others from our sphere of moral concern. The fact that we sometimes turn a blind eye to the consequences of such exclusion does not make these consequences go away, and it does not negate the prudential justification for respect for persons and the human right to equal concern that it entails.

Empathetic identification with the pain of moral exclusion together with our common need for social coordination thus justify a universal right to moral respect as equal concern. Because we share a common capacity to be norm generating, the way to honor this right is to practice deliberative equality, or to incorporate all relevant sentiments into the deliberative standpoint that generates norms and guides individual actions. This practice makes individuals equally the sources of the norms that bind them, and thereby treats them as ends in themselves.

The basic human right to equal concern does not mean that all actual sentiments are to be automatically weighted equally in moral and political deliberation, of course. Not all sentiments are themselves reflectively endorsable; there may be grounds for weighting the sentiments of different individuals differently in any given case. The right to be included in the sphere of moral concern requires rather that the sentiments of all those affected by a norm or an action be considered impartially, and that where these sentiments do not themselves violate the principle of equal respect or thwart the endorsable sentiments of those affected by them, they should be incorporated into the generalized perspective of moral sentiment and reflected in our judgments and our norms.

The fundamental human right, then, is the right to equal consideration, the right to have one’s concerns count with others. All human rights derive from this fundamental right. More specific articulations of rights will then be the outcomes of the deliberative practices that embody the principle of equal concern. [7] So there is just one human right that is absolutely universal; the content of other rights is subject to collective deliberation and may vary because the basic right does not in itself determine the full slate of rights that may reasonably be claimed. Being political in this sense, the approach allows for a measure of cultural diversity in the articulation of human rights and therefore insulates itself against charges of cultural imperialism.

Seen through the moral sentiment lens, the process of iterating particular human rights is a political, contestatory process, involving the empathetic (but, as we have seen, critically informed) exchange of sentiments among individuals and groups. [8] The process calls for some constraints, of course. The basic right to equal concern implies a right to the necessary conditions for the empathetic exchange of sentiments and the exercise of the generalized standpoint itself. These rights will include freedom of speech and expression, freedom of association, and freedom of the press. They will also include rights to a system of governance that is responsive to citizens’ concerns and treats them with equal concern. Democracy is one way to honor these rights, but there are other conceivable ways to do so as well. We should resist the temptation to think that there is only one way, politically speaking, to make good on the obligation to include all persons in our sphere of moral concern. But we do need to ensure that the communication of sentiments can flow freely. This is indeed a requirement of the right to equal concern.

Human rights are the products of moral sentiment but they also help to enrich our faculty of moral sentiment. As more specific rights are articulated and contested in the deliberative processes that instantiate the universal right to moral inclusion, they have the effect of informing us about the sentiments of others, thereby extending the reach of our empathy and enlarging the range of sentiments and experiences that the generalized standpoint includes.

We might conceive this dynamic in terms of an upward- and outward-reaching spiral. At the base of the spiral, the exercise of empathy that figures in the justification of the fundamental right to equal respect enables us to identify with the singular but universal experience of pain the face of moral exclusion. This right in turn justifies the deliberative practices through which a host of more specific experiences of suffering and aspiration – and the sentiments they entail – get communicated across persons through articulations of particular political, social, and economic rights. As we learn more, and as new circumstances generate new experiences, our faculty of empathy is able to convey to us a range of sentiments that is more highly specified and increasingly comprehensive. The practice of human rights thus serves to refine the empathy that helps to justify human rights. The dynamism of this spiraled relationship helps explain why human rights can change over time, and why legitimate variation among specific human rights exists across cultures, even though the idea of human rights implies a core moral universalism.

Human rights seen through the lens of moral sentiment lose their utopian cast and the moralism that so often puts them in competition with self-interest, the dominant motive in international politics. This is not to deny that real conflicts can arise between individual and state interests on the one hand, and the obligation to respect human rights on the other. The point is rather that the human rights of others need not confront us as wholly alien to our interests, as mysterious moral phenomena that live in an entirely different register from the interests and other common concerns that animate us – and our states – in international politics. And to the extent that specific human rights are arrived at deliberatively in processes that engage our faculties of reflective feeling rather than derived from independent principles said (by someone) to have authority over us, they will be more likely to generate compliance because they will be rooted more organically in the moral sentiments and common concerns that regularly move us to act.

So moral sentiment theory, which grounds norms of right in impartial practices of reflective feeling, has something to offer the theory and practice of human rights today. It can help us to justify human rights; to understand the deliberative processes through which specific human rights are interpreted, contested, and applied in different cultural contexts; and to motivate respect for human rights. To make the case for moral sentiment compelling would require far more elaboration than is possible here. My purpose has been rather to bring human rights discourse into conversation with moral sentiment theory and thereby to suggest an avenue for future research. Our theories and practices of human rights ought to attend more carefully to moral sentiment. Over time, the advance of human rights in our world of difference will depend on the empathetic education of human sentiments – and this is only likely to transpire if we first allow ourselves to be educated by the sentiments.

Piece originally pubished at The Art of Theory | Creative Commons License


[1]. Brooke Ackerly, Universal Human Rights in a World of Difference (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

[2]. In this respect, human rights theory has taken to following human rights practice, which has always been non-committal on the issue of justification. As Jacques Maritain said at the time the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights was ratified in 1948, “Yes, we agree about the rights, but on condition that no one asks us why.” Cited in Joshua Cohen, “Minimalism about Human Rights: The Most We Can Hope For?” Journal of Political Philosophy 12 (2) (2004), 193. On the political turn in human rights theory, see Kenneth Baynes, “Discourse Ethics and the Political Conception of Human Rights,” Ethics and Global Politics 2 (1) (2009), 1-2; Jean L. Cohen, “Rethinking Human Rights, Democracy, and Sovereignty in the Age of Globalization,” Political Theory 36 (4) (August 2008), 579; Joshua Cohen, “Minimalism about Human Rights,” 198, 200; Michael Ignatieff, Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 20f; Joseph Raz, “Human Rights Without Foundations,” University of Oxford Faculty of Law Legal Studies Research Paper Series, Working Paper no. 14.2007 (March 2007), 9; John Rawls, The Law of Peoples (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001); and Bernard Williams, In the Beginning Was the Deed (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 64.

[3]. See Rainer Forst, “The Basic Right to Justification: Toward a Constructivist Conception of Human Rights,” Constellations 6 (1) (1999), 35.

[4]. David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. L.A. Selby-Bigge (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), 583.

[5]. Hume, Treatise, 472.

[6]. For a more complete elaboration of the operations of moral sentiment in judgment and deliberation, see Sharon R. Krause, Civil Passions: Moral Sentiment and Democratic Deliberation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).

[7]. There is an affinity between the moral sentiment approach I pursue here and the view of human rights developed by some proponents of Habermasian discourse ethics. Rainer Forst, for instance, argues that all human rights derive from a single fundamental right, the right to justification, and that more specific articulations of rights ought to be conceived as the outcomes of the deliberative practices that embody the principle of justification. (Forst, “The Basic Right to Justification”). The grounds of the basic right are different in the two cases, however, as Forst (following Habermas) grounds the right to justification in the pragmatic conditions of communication. Moreover, the “core” of the justification view is “the idea of a being who both gives and demands reasons and is therefore autonomous” (Forst, “The Basic Right to Justification,” 42).  By contrast, the core of the moral sentiment view is the idea of a being who is moved by the empathetic communication of sentiments, who is reflectively responsive to the concerns of others and invested in social coordination. She is capable of critical reflection and independent thinking, but her capacity for moral sentiment sustains her in an intersubjective practice of deliberative judgment rather than making her “autonomous.” Moreover, what matters to her most fundamentally is not the giving and receiving of reasons per se but that others are responsive to the things that matter to her – as a human being, as a citizen, and as a distinctive individual. Justification is one way to be responsive to the concerns of others but it is not the only way, and it has no particular moral value in itself.

[8]. Seyla Benhabib’s notion of the “democratic iterations” through which universal human rights come to be articulated for particular localities and within distinctive cultures captures this contestatory process in important ways. In contrast to Benhabib’s view, however, which posits an extensive set of specific human rights (including a right to democracy) as prior to (and independent of) the deliberative process, the moral sentiment approach means to be more open to plurality. For Benhabib, the only legitimate iterations of human rights are democratic ones. This issue is addressed briefly in what follows.

About the Author:

Sharon Krause is Professor of Political Science at Brown University. She is the author of Liberalism with Honor and Civil Passions: Moral Sentiment and Democratic Deliberation.