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  • VI.The Birth of the Human Rights Idea

    Today, human rights are something like a secular Decalogue of our modern era. They are not, however, a modern invention: rights and the reflection about rights have a very long history, in Natural Law and in social contract theory, for example. An important more recent example is the thought concerning rights in the Enlightenment, based on practical reason and the particular concept of human dignity.

    KANT’S categorical imperative is a crucial expression of this kind of thinking. The categorical imperative is at the core of KANT’S ethics and is wedded to the idea of universalisation. It holds:

    Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.”33

    This means that any ethical principle followed by an individual has to be able to survive the test of universalisation. Only if it is thinkable that such a rule could be applied to everybody can it be a legitimate rule.

    The second version of KANT’S categorical imperative is the so-called principle of humanity:

    So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.“34

    This is an exacting statement; it means that every individual is the ultimate limiting condition of actions by individuals and social order. It is thus the principle of radical humanism.35

    The idea of universalisation is mirrored in the concept of right:

    Right is therefore the sum of the conditions under which the choice of one can be united with the choice of another in accordance with the universal law of freedom.”36

    There is one natural subjective right under this principle of law that incorporates the categorical imperative in legal thinking. This natural subjective right is

    freedom (independence from being constrained by another’s choice), insofar as it can coexist with the freedom of any other in accordance with the universal law, is the only original right belonging to every human being by virtue of his humanity.”37

    This is not just a right to freedom; it is the subjective right to universally equal freedom, based on the equal dignity of human beings. KANT’S formulation thus weaves together normative elements that continue to be foundational for the human rights project today.


    33IMMANUEL KANT, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, in Immanuel Kant, Practical Philosophy, The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant, translated and edited by Mary J. Gregor, Cambridge 2008 (cit. KANT, Groundwork), pp. 37 (German source: IMMANUEL KANT, Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten, 1785, Akademie Ausgabe, Band IV, Berlin 1911, S. 421: “Handle nur nach der Maxime, durch die du zugleich wollen kannst, dass sie ein allgemeines Gesetz werde.”).

    34KANT, Groundwork, pp. 37 (German source: “Handle so, dass du die Menschheit, sowohl in deiner Person als in der Person eines jeden anderen, jederzeit zugleich als Zweck, niemals bloß als Mittel brauchst.”).

    35This principle had a major impact on the case law of different legal systems of the world. See for an overview MAHLMANN, Human Dignity, pp. 370.

    36KANT, Metaphysics of Morals, pp. 353 (German source: „Das Recht ist also der Inbegriff der Bedingungen, unter denen die Willkür des einen mit der Willkür des anderen nach einem allgemeinen Gesetz der Freiheit zusammen vereinigt werden kann.“).

    37KANT, Metaphysics of Morals pp. 353. Please note that the German original is gender neutral (Mensch): „Freiheit (Unabhängigkeit von eines anderen nöthigender Willkür), sofern sie mit jedes Anderen Freiheit nach einem allgemeinen Gesetz zusammen bestehen kann, ist dieses einzige, ursprüngliche, jedem Menschen kraft seiner Menschheit zustehende Recht.Therefore, the translation has been adapted.