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Deliberating cosmopolitan ideas: does a democratic conception of human rights make sense?

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One of the major theory-based problems for human rights is that they lack an agreed ontological foundation. The objective of this chapter is to consider whether it is possible to justify global human rights by reference to an application of deliberative democracy to world society, given that the relevant community of fate is the unbounded human species. Three approaches can be seen in the literature: human rights as globalized constitutional rights (the position advanced by Jürgen Habermas); human rights as global constitutional rights; and human rights as a global ethic arrived at through reasoned deliberations. This consensus literature can, though, be contrasted with work that understands human rights as the politics of dissensus – the product of outrage and emotion, not reason. Drawing on the insights from the social systems theories of Niklas Luhmann and Gunther Teubner, this work considers the implications of the dissensus literature, concluding that human rights becomes meaningful primarily as an argument against politics. The contingent and contested device of the human ‘face’, which demands inclusion in the system and complains of violations of physical and psychological integrity, allows for a global (cosmopolitan) conversation around ‘being human’ – and provides the starting point for any discussion of the idea of human rights.