Each of the four contributors to Human Rights and Cultural Meanings is a scholar in the area of moral rights, especially its very complex subdomain of human rights. From their different perspectives they clarify the ongoing, socially constructed character of rights theory in general as well as its specific contemporary version, “human rights.” The first chapter, “Human rights as social constructions” by Patricia Werhane and Thomas Wren, is directly focused on the socially constructed character of the concept of rights, especially the contemporary notion of human rights. Abstract models of human rights are not eternal truths but rather historical phenomena that provide more or less useful conceptual schemes for generating general principles of fairness, liberty, mutual respect, and security. In the next chapter, “Educating for human rights consciousness,” educator Michelle Bellino demonstrates the inherently unfinished character of human rights discourse. She presents a remarkable ethnographic study of the reception by Guatemalan students of a human rights-based educational program established in the aftermath of their country’s 36-year civil war. Her study includes a rich typology in which young people exhibit denial of the normative claims of human rights, skepticism about whether it can be effectively practiced in their own country, and a sense of empowerment. In contrast, David Ozar’s “Human rights and the rest of us” uses the surgical tools of contemporary analytical philosophy to reconstruct the claim that human rights claims are only “manifestos” addressed to everyone in principle and no one in particular. He demonstrates that the human rights claims of distant others are addressed to all of us, albeit in many different ways. The final chapter, Wren’s “The birth of rights talk,” traces the transition from the ancient notion of objective rightness to the modern notion of rights as powers. He argues that the transformation took place in the high middle ages, as part of a larger social transformation that included new person-centered modes of discourse for interpreting sacred and classical texts as well as for rough and ready litigating.

Professional Reviews

“This is a fascinating book! Each of its four contributors is an accomplished scholar in the area of moral rights, especially its very complex subdomain of human rights….All in all, this is a very sophisticated yet quite readable contribution to the ongoing discussion of moral rights in general and human rights in particular. It is, in short, a ‘must read’ for anyone interested in these issues.”—Dennis J. McGuire, Author of Healing the Wounds of Childhood.

“This book is at the center of the philosophical debate about human rights. Everyone concerned with rights, especially human rights, should read it.”—Professor R. Edward Freeman, Darden School of Business, University of Virginia

“This is a fine set of essays. They are all carefully done and move the contemporary discussion forward. My own favorite was the first one, ‘Human rights as social constructions.’ In this a timely and thought provoking contribution Patricia Werhane and Thomas Wren examine the sometimes fragile concept of rights, and argue convincingly that human rights and conceptual models of human rights are not ‘eternal’ truths. They show instead that these rights are socially constructed historical phenomena that function as useful guides or ideologies (in the non-pejorative sense of that term) for smooth-running cultures, and incorporate social values such as liberty, fairness, security and mutual respect. The authors don’t anticipate that there will ever be full agreement in any of these areas, but instead show how there could be normative principles on which most individuals could reach agreement.”—Elaine E. Englehardt, Distinguished Professor of Ethics, Utah Valley University.

“This is a concise, critical analysis of the latest viewpoints in Rights theories, and a must-read for business leaders and ethicists alike. Together the four authors present a comprehensive, circumspect, and critical review of the latest thinking of rights theories. It is a welcome addition to the canon of works on moral rights, and especially to the literature of human rights.”—Professor Tom Cunningham, Department of Organizational Psychology, All Hallows College, Dublin