Neo-Roman Liberty in the Philosophy of Human Rights

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It is my contention here that Quentin Skinner’s conception of neo-roman liberty as it is articulated in Liberty Before Liberalism serves to establish two normative premises for human rights philosophy. Those premises are, first, that human rights should offer the strongest protection for those persons who are most vulnerable and liable to social and political discrimination and marginalisation. Second, the objects of human rights should be conceptualised in terms of open-ended goals of justice, predicated on a commitment to structural equality. I will have reason to refer to a reflection that Skinner makes on utopianism and how the “classic liberal case” of liberty can be associated with a critique of utopianism in political theory. By utopianism Skinner means – with reference to William Paley – a political theory that incorporates into its concepts demands that cannot be met without a fundamental change of practice and which moves beyond what it is at present reasonable for most people to expect of life. On this understanding, Skinner points out, John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice is a utopian treatise: it does not adapt to whatever is politically feasible but sets a challenging standard of justice for political institutions. I would qualify this by saying that the challenging nature of Rawls’s theory of justice is connected to the fact that it is systemic rather than utopian.
A fear of the charge of utopianism is one of the recurrent features of human rights philosophy as we know it today. This is manifest in an incongruous tendency to join a moral philosophy of the good life with a political theory of basic provisions and life at the subsistence level. I hope to show that there is a consistent neo-roman case to be made for a more politically challenging human rights philosophy.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationRethinking Liberty Before Liberalism
EditorsHannah Dawson, Annelien de Dijn
PublisherCambridge University Press
ISBN (Electronic)9781108951722
ISBN (Print)978-1108948395
Publication statusPublished - 2022 Feb

Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • Philosophy
  • History of Ideas

Free keywords

  • liberty
  • liberalism
  • human rights
  • Quentin Skinner
  • republicanism
  • neo-roman liberty


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