Human Rights and Global Public Goods: The Sound of One Hand Clapping

Research output: Working paper

Abstract / Description of output

Each operating in a presumptively general or universal register, ‘public goods’ and ‘human rights’ are amongst the most popular and visible contemporary carriers of ideas of global law and governance, and so prime sources for any broader project of global justice. Their combination, moreover, hold out the prospect of a fertile engagement between the two core concerns of modern political morality – our collective requirements and potential (public goods) and our individual dignity and well-being (human rights). Yet for all their ambition, public goods and human rights each faces the formidable challenge of placing considerations of political authority and political morality in productive balance. Exploring both, we face the frustrating phenomenon of one hand clapping – with a failure to reconcile authority and morality in a satisfactory manner. The discourse of global public goods presupposes rather than provides grounds for the relevant ‘public’, and so suffers from a general deficit of political authority, which in turn reinforces the incompleteness of its claim in political morality. The discourse of human rights, perhaps surprisingly, reveals stronger authoritative roots, but these are locally situated, and the soil becomes very thin as we move away from the state to the broader global environment and the familiar yet ethically abstracted moral discourse of universal entitlement. In conclusion, I argue, it is just because both these dimensions of global ethics, public goods and human rights, face the same type of difficulty of the grounding political authority that their conjunction in a single scheme does not allow either to compensate for the deficiencies of the other.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherSocial Science Research Network (SSRN)
Number of pages18
Publication statusPublished - 21 Jul 2015

Publication series

NameEdinburgh Law School Working Papers

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • human rights
  • public goods
  • political authority
  • political morality
  • global law
  • global justice


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