Democracy and Human Rights

Module code: 915V1
Level 7 (Masters)
30 credits in spring semester
Teaching method: Seminar
Assessment modes: Essay

In contemporary political philosophy, rights are often described as the necessary foundation of democratic government. It's thought that the democratic polity couldn't function without the establishment of and adherence to particular rights. The democratic values of individual equality, trust and compromise are said to help foster a political culture respectful of rights. And enshrining human rights in law is often said to ensure liberal governance.  

The module starts by studying the first attempts to establish political systems based upon rights and contemporary criticisms and justifications of democracy. Democracy was often seen as a source of internal division, a dangerous motor of extremism and unnecessary innovation, and a cause of international instability (because of the usual support of the people for external wars). Yet it could also be described as a just and wise form of government that upholds a polity whose patriotic populace are devoted to the public good.

You study authors who saw democracy and rights as mutually sustaining, from Condorcet and Thomas Paine onwards. You'll explore how such authors addressed the issues of necessity in politics and strove to secure national unity, commercial success and national defence. 

You also scrutinise the presumed fit between rights and democracy by examining the origins of modern ideas about both concepts, from Aristotle's defence of the natural slave and scholastic ideas about rights to the 17th-century attempt to create a minimalist natural law and beyond. Enlightenment-era authors, especially in France and Scotland, put forward modules for reform. They intended to curb the perceived excesses of commercial society and protect certain civil liberties. Some reformers, such as the physiocrats, thought the assertion of rights was key to French economic and political revival – even if this was premised on the avoidance of democracy. For the physiocrats (and for so many early modern authors) there was no necessary connection between democracy and rights. The main goal of politics was to avoid the violence and irrationality associated with mob rule and the active role of the people as political agents.

The module ends by studying current presumed connections between universal human rights and democratic governance.

Module learning outcomes

  • Have a sense of the manifold European perspectives upon democracy and human rights.
  • Be able to frame an argument concerning the nature of democracy and its relationship to different ideas about human rights.
  • Have knowledge of the central primary texts which have addressed the issues surrounding democracy and human rights.
  • Be able to martial primary sources in support of an argument and to develop a series of arguments that lead to a clear conclusion.