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Instructor: Joseph Ross. This course meets TR 12:30 – 1:45 p.m. in GA 210.

What are human rights? Where do they come from? Who possesses them? How are they universal? When can they be legally justified?

In this course, students investigate the origin, meaning, and morality of human rights. Through a variety of primary and secondary sources in the classical and contemporary periods, students will evaluate not only how intellectuals of different eras have understood the concept of human rights, but also how human rights have (and have not) been implemented in past societies, policies, and institutions. This historical approach will allow students to better understand the complicated development of human rights over time and what role they play in our daily lives. By engaging with the concept of human rights from philosophical, historical, legal, and political perspectives, students will recognize the contradictions that exist between the egalitarian promise of human rights and the rampant social and economic inequalities that continue to plague our present world. The twentieth century saw the rise of international institutions and agreements claiming to uphold universal human rights standards, yet the same period also witnessed unimaginable crimes, suffering, and genocide. A powerful country like China routinely disregards the human rights of its own people and faces little to no consequences from the international community. It seems that the idealistic vision of universal human rights is often overshadowed by the realist maxim that the strong do what they can while the weak suffer what they must. The promise of human rights to create a more equal, fair, and just world has still not been realized, and students will consider whether it even can.

Students will read, interpret, and critically engage with texts across a broad range of academic disciplines on the topic of human rights—what they are, where they came from, how they have developed, and ultimately whether they matter. Following brief lectures on the historical, cultural, and philosophical context of these readings, students will work in small groups to discuss the assigned material before the instructor facilitates a larger conversation covering major themes presented in these works. Students will collaborate throughout the semester to lead discussion and will be responsible for a final research project on the relevance of human rights in the past and the present, as well as their place in the future, which they will then present during the final exam period.