There has for quite some time been an ongoing academic debate about where it is that one can properly ground the idea of human rights — what is its foundation or source? Some prominent scholars say that a robust conception of human rights requires a specific sort of religious grounding; others forcefully deny that claim. One will see radically different sorts of answers to the question, for example, in the work of Michael Perry (see his many books on human rights, as well as “The Morality of Human Rights: A Nonreligious Ground?”) and Joseph Raz (again, the best place is some of his more recent books, but a nice summary view is “Human Rights Without Foundations”).
Here is a new entrant into these discussions: Human Rights as Social Construction (CUP 2012) by Benjamin Gregg (University of Texas), who seems to be arguing for the local roots of human rights — human rights from the ground up, as it were. The publisher’s description follows.
Most conceptions of human rights rely on metaphysical or theological assumptions that construe them as possible only as something imposed from outside existing communities. Most people, in other words, presume that human rights come from nature, God, or the United Nations. This book argues that reliance on such putative sources actually undermines human rights. Benjamin Gregg envisions an alternative; he sees human rights as locally developed, freely embraced, and indigenously valid. Human rights, he posits, can be created by the average, ordinary people to whom they are addressed, and that they are valid only if embraced by those to whom they would apply. To view human rights in this manner is to increase the chances and opportunities that more people across the globe will come to embrace them.