We live in a world in which the idea of human rights is persistently invoked. However, despite the tremendous appeal of the idea of human rights, it is also seen by many as lacking in foundation. I have argued, particularly in my book The Idea of Justice, that human rights are best seen as articulations of commitments in social ethics, comparable to — but very different from — accepting utilitarian reasoning. Like other ethical tenets, human rights can, of course, be disputed, but the claim is that they will survive open and informed scrutiny.
This view contrasts with seeing human rights in primarily legal terms, either as consequences of humane legislation, or as precursors of legal rights, or as pointing towards what should ideally be legal rights. Human rights may well be reflected in legislation, may inspire legislation, and may even serve, in many circumstances, as ideals that demand legislative attention. However, these are ‘further facts’— not the defining characteristics of human rights.