Undergraduate Coursework


  1. In what ways was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights made legitimate as having global relevance? Do you think the charge that it is a “western” imposition can be sustained?. 2
  2. How would you argue for the universal validity of the concept of human rights?. 4
  3. Explain and critically evaluate Martha Nussbaum’s view that “capabilities” are of central importance to an understanding of human rights?. 5

References. 7


1.   In what ways was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights made legitimate as having global relevance? Do you think the charge that it is a “western” imposition can be sustained?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is of utmost relevance in the contemporary world. This is evident in the fact that the notion of human rights continues to be a fundamental principle that guides interactions among all people around the world. Since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was established, people from different countries have become empowered to make efforts to highlight and respond to issues that they think constitute violations of human rights.

The global relevance of the UDHR is evident in the fact that states, governments, non-governmental organizations, government agencies, multinational enterprises, and international organizations acknowledge the need to impose conditions that guarantee a life of dignity and respect for humankind (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2012). These entities appreciate the fact that the best way of imposing these conditions is by promoting the doctrine of human rights. This is simply because when human rights are promoted, an element of morality in human existence is promoted. Moreover, when the human rights of all people are protected, everyone is given an equal opportunity to lead a human life.

For UDHR to be viewed as legitimate in terms of global relevance, it should be viewed in the context of the need for all people to respect basic human rights. The need to respect human rights applies to everyone, including those from the West. Therefore, it would be unacceptable for the notion of human rights to be viewed as a Western imposition. Similarly, such universal applicability can be appreciated if emphasis is put on the importance of moral equality among all peoples. It is important for people from all parts of the world to be respected for the simple reason of the need to preserve a common humanity. This element of common humanity is not restricted to the Western thinking about human rights. Rather, it is shared among peoples and individuals across the modern world. Indeed, it influences interactions on social, economic, cultural, political levels.

When the UN proclaimed the UDHR in 1948, the core objective was to articulate the idea of human rights. The UN was keen not to give this declaration the force of law. Instead, it was crafted in such a way that it was an expression of international consensus regarding the socio-political aspirations of UN member states. This consensus was promoted against the backdrop of the massive loss of life and destruction of property experienced during the World War II. States of both the West and the East were in consensus that there was a need to avoid a repeat of such a war. They were also in consensus that the main way of promoting peace was by inviting all UN member states to sign the UDHR.

The UDHR served as a basis for legally binding agreements that various states signed in efforts to promote human rights. One of them is the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which was signed in 1948. Another one is the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural rights, which was signed in 1966 (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2010). As recently as 2007, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was signed (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2010).

To understand the relevance of UDHR it is imperative for the threat of war in the modern world to be assessed. This consideration is important given the fact the horrors of death and destruction that humanity experienced during the World War II constituted the main motivation for formulating the UDHR. The threat of war is real to both the West and the rest of the world. It is in the best interest of all states to uphold the values enshrined in the UDHR. In recent times, the world has been experiencing armed conflicts that have led to massive loss of lives. These conflicts affect countries affiliated to both the West and the East. If these values were being promoted by all actors in these conflicts, no loss of lives and property would have been experienced. Therefore, the fact that it is in the interest of both the West and the East to promote the doctrine of human rights means that the charge that UDHR is a “Western” imposition cannot be sustained.

2.   How would you argue for the universal validity of the concept of human rights?

The concept of human rights is universally valid for many reasons. One of them is that it enables people gain access to basic entitlements (Donnelly, 2013). It also creates a platform for people to derive moral power to produce certain obligations in both individuals and states. Moreover, it provides a framework through which socially constructed expectations can be outlined. In all these reasons, the best explanation for the validity of the notion of human rights is that it guarantees equality of human relations.

The concept of human rights can be used to promote equality among the rich and poor nations. When rich countries donate assistance to poor countries, they are conventionally regarded as being benevolent (Donnelly, 2013). Such countries may fall into the trap of perceiving themselves as being superior to aid-receiving countries. To ensure that this does not happen, countries may promote the notion of assistance as being a fundamental human right. In this way, donor-giving countries may be viewed as adherents of the doctrine of human rights. On the other hand, the donor-receiving countries stop being viewed as supplicants or beggars. In other words, the goal of moral equality is achieved, such that none between the donor and the recipient seems to occupy a higher moral ground. In the context of the concept of human rights, justice is said to have been done whenever poor countries receive donor aid from rich countries and international agencies. This conception validates the concept of human rights in today’s world of unequal socio-economic and political relations. It does this by demonstrating its ability to promote equality, thereby reducing the likelihood of the occurrence of disputes and armed conflicts.

3.   Explain and critically evaluate Martha Nussbaum’s view that “capabilities” are of central importance to an understanding of human rights?

Martha Nussbaum uses the term “capabilities” to explain the importance of human rights to the world. Nassbaum (2000) views “basic capabilities” the innate equipment that is necessary for use by individuals in the development of more advanced capabilities. For example, the basic capability of speech and language is present in newborns but must be fostered. In essence, the notion of capabilities that Nassbaum refers to highlights a range of opportunities that provide a real opportunity for individuals to avoid poverty and promote well-being. The impression created here is that an assessment of capabilities is necessary for poverty analysis in poor countries. It is also important in the critical review of theories of justice whose distributive rule is founded on the concept of sufficiency.

Nevertheless, a more critical reason why it is important to embrace the concept of “capabilities” as proposed by Nussbaum is that it is not restricted to poverty analysis; rather, it can also be used as a framework for evaluating policies and projects aimed at measuring inequalities in non-poor countries and communities. However, it is important for one to avoid the misleading notion of thinking that the capability approach is restricted to issues of poverty and development only. This point is important to note because human rights entail many more issues and not just aspects of poverty and development. At least, Nussbaum does not present any normative reason for restricting the interpretation of the capability approach to issues of poverty and development.

Nassbaum (2004) puts the greatest emphasis on the normative elements of the capability approach. This is evident when one views her arguments from the perspective of “functional elements”. For instance, Nassbaum does not provide a particular account of a good life as far as the role of human rights is concerned. Instead, she highlights a range of possible approaches to life from which individuals can choose. It is from this perspective that the importance of the capability approach to the understanding of human rights becomes evident.

In many ways, Nassbaum’s (2001) conception of “capabilities” point towards a liberal view of human rights. According to Nassbaum, one of the best ways of ensuring adherence to fundamental human rights is by promoting various capabilities that are innate in humankind. For these capabilities to be promoted, an anti-paternalistic approach should be adopted. This means that efforts should be made to oppose policies and practices of individuals in positions of authority that restrict the freedoms and capabilities of subordinates. In this regard, it is obvious that the strength of this argument depends on the extent to which one how bad an individual takes paternalism to be. For instance, some people may argue that elements of paternalism are unavoidable in the process of selecting capabilities in efforts to ensure that human rights are promoted. In this regard, a conflict between responsibility and sensitivity seems to emerge, at least at the theoretical level. In the practical sense, however, the “capabilities” approach contributes immensely to an in-depth understanding of human rights.


Donnelly, J 2013, Universal human rights in theory and practice, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2010, Human rights, retrieved from http://www.iep.utm.edu/hum-rts/  on September 1, 2013.

Nussbaum , M 2001, Women and human development: The capabilities approach, Routledge, London.

Nussbaum, M 2000, ‘Women’s Capabilities and Social Justice’, Journal of Human Development, vol. 1, no. 2, pp. 219-247.

Nussbaum, M 2004, ‘Aristotle, Politics, and Human Capabilities: A Response to Antony, Arneson, Charlesworth, and Mulgan’, Ethics, vol. 111, no. 1, pp. 102-140.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2012, Human rights, retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rights-human/  on September 1, 2013.


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