On Witches, Human Rights and Plausibility Structures

Stream: Panel 66 - Political Theory: Problems of Liberal Egalitarianism 
Date: Wednesday, 28 September 2016
Time: 9.00 am – 10.30 am


This paper explores the sociological reasons for the prevailing belief in human rights, and questions the idea that human rights can be philosophical justified in a purely secular terms. The starting point is Alasdair MacIntyre’s provocative claim in After Virtue (1981) that belief in human rights ‘is one with belief in witches and in unicorns.’ While the paper argues that human rights can potentially be philosophically defended, it makes the case, in agreement with MacIntyre, that the dominant forms of moral philosophy since the Enlightenment do not have the resources to ground human rights. The dominance of the human rights discourse in recent times stems from a culture of individualism and as Samuel Moyne has argued (The Last Utopia, 2010), from the decline of alternative forms of collective political action. As such, the culture of human rights represents the triumph of an anti-political politics.


Ian Tregenza (Presenter), Macquarie University
Dr. Ian Tregenza is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Modern History, Politics and International Relations at Macquarie University where he teaches courses in political theory and religion and politics. His current research focuses principally on Australian intellectual and political history from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century and is currently collaborating on an ARC funded project on the history of the secular state in Australia.