Contemporary human rights policies are closely tied to claims of the universality of these rights, which is salient in the ‘Universal Declaration of Human rights’ (1948). This document consists of thirty articles which cover the rights of all individuals in the world, acknowledging the inclusive aspect of the rights (Nickel, 2017). In this regard, human rights are understood as rights that all humans have simply due the fact that they are human (Donnelly, 2007).

In his paper ‘Human Rights, Rationality and Sentimentality’ Richard Rorty states that this claim of ‘human rights foundationalism’ is outmoded and ineffective. While acclaimed philosophers assumed the presence of ‘a special added ingredient’ (Plato) or ‘a sense of moral obligation’ (Kant) that all humans possess, Rorty insists that these complex claims about ‘an appeal to something transcultural’ should not be the cornerstone of human rights. He thinks it is ineffective to focus on the concept of a shared human aspect, as ‘irrational people’ do note care much for this idea and rather are ‘morally offended’ to treat someone who is not kin as an equal human being.
Rorty hopes to solve this human/non-human distinction by increasing the visibility of similarities[1] between different people by increasing sentimental education. This means that we should not focus on the answer to ‘Why should I be moral?’, but rather on how empathy and compassion can encourage people to show affection towards strangers (Rorty, 1998).

One might object that the human/non-human distinction Rorty uses is incomprehensive, as violations of human rights do not always happen because of ‘bad’ people making a clear distinction between themselves and their victims based on the absence of a shared human aspect. For example, human rights violations are often caused by an extreme form of advocacy by an ideology or religion, i.e. extremism.
I do agree that Rorty’s human/non-human distinction is non-sufficient to capture all origins of human right violations. There are many examples where ideology (extreme left-wing/right-wing) or religion (Boko Haram[2]) are the reasons for human rights violations. However, I do not think this will shatter Rorty’s solidly built house of cards. Even though the distinction that he uses is not always comprehensive, the effect of sentimental education will be similar. By making people more aware of similarities with other people, superficial as they might be, the awareness of these similarities extends the reference of our people. Hence, due to this awareness, the will to harm people of the out-group will be decreased, even when the reasons for harming out-group people are not based on the assumption that they are less human.

This brings us to a possible second critique: the practical feasibility of sentimental education. One can question how this idea of sentimental education functions in practice, by asking how you would get Islamic State fighters ‘more acquainted’ with one that is not within their ideology. Is the idea of sentimental education itself not a ‘Eurocentric intellectual’ ideology, to use Rorty’s own terms?
I am fully convinced there are no practical limitations to fulfill the requirements of sentimental education in developed countries where access to education is a matter of course and people have the possibility to be educated to ‘cherish powerless people’ and increase empathy towards them, as I agree with Rorty’s co-philosopher Annette Baier that this has been happening for the last 200 years (Rorty, 1998). However, it can be argued that this is only possible in ‘developed’ societies, and that sentimental education is essentially impossible when we think of societies where extremism is predominant.

I partly agree with this objection, as I think that most extremists have passed ‘a point of no return’.  Pointing out superficial similarities won’t stop them from violating human rights. However, there are ways of indirect sentimental education which can be more constructive, which I will point out in the following example.
In Congo, extremist groups make widespread use of child soldiers. From this, we can assume that extremism often is developed at a very young age. If we allow extremists to train children into full grown soldiers, we are too late. However, if interception starts at an early stage, the expansion of extremist groups can be restrained. Quoting from a recent report of the human rights organization Child Soldiers International: “Staying in school protects girls from recruitment and other grave violations by armed groups. The girls we talked to emphasized the importance of education in their lives. Using their words, this report illustrates the protective role schooling can play in the lives of girls affected by armed conflict, and the potential of education to support the social acceptance and reintegration of former girl soldiers into the community” (Child Soldiers International, 2016).

Even though the distinction between regular education and sentimental education might not be completely compelling in this example, I still think this is how Rorty would regard the first acts of sentimental education in circumstances that seemed impossible to administer at first sight. On the one hand, it shows how sentimental education can prevent the expansion of extremism and on the other hand how (sentimental) education can develop acceptance towards ‘powerless people’, i.e. the former girl soldiers.

All things considered, Rorty has produced a constructive theoretical framework for a pragmatic approach on human rights. He went down on a much-promising road to make human rights more accessible and sustainable for all humans, not just ‘Eurocentric intellectuals’. Rorty’s emphasis on how people can expand the reference of the term our kind of people is much more useful than elongated debates on what human nature is or should be. To my opinion, authentic and meaningful moral progress can only be set in motion with sentimental education as a blueprint for the (global) development of empathy. Rorty’s focus on empathy may well be the key to legitimate and inclusive human rights.


BBC News. (2014, May 13). Who, What, Why: Exactly what does the phrase Boko Haram mean?

Child Soldiers International. (2016). If I could go to school.. Education as a tool to prevent the recuitment of girls and assist with their recovery and reintegration in Democratic Republic of Congo. London: Child Soldiers International.

Donnelly, J. (2007). The Relative Universality of Human Rights. Human Rights Quarterly 29, 281-306.

Nickel, J. (2017). Human Rights. Retrieved from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy :

Rorty, R. (1998). Human Rights, Rationality, and Sentimentality. Truth and Progress: Philosophical Papers, 167-185.

[1] This does not have to be a deeply shared human aspect, but can be a superficial similarity, like how we cherish our parents or how we love our children.

[2] Boko Haram literally means “non-Islamic or Western education is a sin” (BBC News, 2014), showing very strongly how ideology can be the motivation for human rights violations, instead of the human/non-human distinction.

Categories: Long Reads


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