Human rights as idolatry

We need to stop thinking about human rights as trumps and begin thinking of them as a language that creates the basis for deliberation.

I’ve been reading Michael Ignatieff’s 2001 lectures, Human Rights As Politics and Idolatry. Ignatieff is a true human rights pragmatist. To him, rights are neither inviolable nor intrinsic. Inviolability is impossible, since rights so often contradict even themselves. Intrinsic? This requires us to root rights in religious faith (which is exclusionary or imperial). Among humanists, it is simple idolatry.

This seems like an odd thing for a captain of human rights to argue. But Ignatieff argues that rights need not be inviolable or intrinsic to be universal. Rights exist to protect individuals from tyranny. They are universal because they are useful to all.

This brings him to my favorite argument:

In order to reconcile democracy and human rights, Western policy will have to put more emphasis not on democracy alone but on constitutionalism, the entrenchment of a balance of powers, judicial review of executive decisions, and enforceable minority rights guarantees. Democracy without constitutionalism is simply ethnic majority tyranny.

I’m sympathetic to Ignatieff. Certainly I think human rights serve an instrumental and universal purpose, and that purpose is sufficient to enact and protect them. But is there no deeper basis for human rights than simple pragmatism?

The critics, who write responses at the end of the book, are not so critical. Where are the philosophers who argue the intrinsic basis for rights? Reader suggestions welcome.