The philosophical concepts of human rights are many and varied. Yet, one of the theories that stands out the most in both approach and application is that of Alan Gewirth.
His work demonstrates and ideal that has often been set as a stage for the application of many public issues, from law to psychology. Within the body of his works Gewirth argues that, "...human rights are best defended as necessary prerequisites for individual human beings' exercise of free and rational will." Giving license to the concepts of the right of all humans to act on their own behalf to meet their own needs of happiness through their own free will.
Hence, the value or requiredness of autonomy is not disproved by pointing to conditions whose efficacy stems from a violation of autonomy. The solution to this problem is to maintain or restore autonomy, not acquiesce in its violation. As we shall see, this aim requires an effective system of human rights as a way of avoiding elitist restrictions of desire-autonomy in relation to aspiration-fulfillment. Moreover, persons can themselves control to an important extent whether they can achieve or approach desire-autonomy.
Though Gewirth does not argue that these actions should be performed in a vacuum, without the care of the rights of others, as many philosophers and theorists have pointed out, "Gewirth argues that the each individual's claim to the basic means for rationally purposive action is based upon and appeal to a general rather than, specific attribute of all relevant agents."
In a very concise and informative article Andrew Fagan continues the thought of his above statement by creating an deeper explanation of what is meant by Gewirth's supposition of general attribute of relative agents, "I cannot logically will my own claims to basic human rights without simultaneously accepting the equal claims of all rationally purposive agents to the same basic attributes." Fagan then goes on to explain that "Gewirth has argued that there exists an absolute right to life possessed separately and equally by all of us." Another writer who details Gewirth's beliefs also defines a key point of terminology surrounding it:
This claim that human beings are capable of purposive action is important because it entails a certain formal rationality belonging essentially to the person qua person. Such "rationality" is both inductive (the ability to determine the effectiveness of action in a given empirical situation) and deductive (the ability to eliminate incoherent, inconsistent, and contradictory goals). Given this account of the person as essentially a rational agent, Gewirth goes on to deduce the fundamental principle of morality, the "Principle of Generic Consistency."
The Principle of Generic Consistency being an important term to understand when dealing with the concepts of this assessment.
Yet, speaking of the application of Gewirth's theory many researchers associated with countless fields of work demonstrate the necessity for the prioritizing of rights according to the scarcity of resources and the demonstration of greater need. It is without a doubt possible to further bolster ideals associated with political protection with the ideals of thinkers such as Gewirth. Of this George Panichas says this:
Neither race, nor ethnicity, nor sex constitute morally relevant factors in the ascription of fundamental rights. A sexual preference for women, a belief in the messiah, or a love of jazz ought neither qualify nor disqualify someone from justifiably laying claim to that which is protected by such rights.
Panichas then goes on to join so many others in an ascription of the definitive and clear theories of Gewirth to prove his case.
In another work addressing the political application on the responsible application of human dignity on social economics demonstrates a strong application of the Gewirth ideas,
Alan Gewirth's challenge of grounding human dignity in human agency, an aspect of human nature that transcends all cultural differences- regardless of whether they are drawn along lines of ethnic origin, race, class, gender, sexual orientation, or what have you- paves the road. The fact of plural moralities is simply not relevant for the normative claim of universal human dignity.
Applying the ideas of Gewirth many social political thinkers are clearly grounded in the applications of both old and new political thought surrounding individuality and the rights of social acceptance and equality.
There are few greater examples of this ideal that within the social/psychological fields. Pointing this out effectively is an article about the priority of effective treatment for those people who some would argue as unable to assert the authority of their own rights. Stanley Witkin in his article, "The Right to Effective Treatment and the Effective Treatment of Rights: Rhetorical Empiricism and the Politics of Research" demonstrates the challenges to the protection of inalienable rights, especially within the field of medical and psychological treatment.
Because we live in a world with limited resources and because we can claim many things as a right, it is necessary to determine what qualifies as a right and then to set priorities among those rights. These are complex questions beyond the scope of this article; however, the philosopher Alan Gewirth (1978, 1996) provided a useful framework for addressing these issues (see Reamer, 1995, and Witkin, 1993, for applications to social work).
Witkin concisely reiterates the most foundational aspects of Gewirth's theory and through application guides the reader through counter arguments associated with them.
In brief, Gewirth argued that freedom and well-being- the necessary conditions of purposive action- are fundamental human rights. Well-being is broken down further to distinguish among conditions necessary to engage in successful action (for example, life itself), maintain one's level of purpose and action (for example, not being discriminated against), or enhance one's ability for purposeful action (for example, wealth and self-esteem). The responsibility to protect these rights rests not only with individuals but also with communities and governments (Gewirth, 1996).
Having clearly established the link between Gewirth's ideas as they apply to the fields of sociology and psychology Witkin demonstrates a greater need for the demonstration of universal rights, even to those people who might temporarily or permanently be void of some of the possible aspects of personal choice and free will, marginal humans as they are known. Without arguments such as these the demonstration of free and rational will could be limited to only those who have voice to protect them, and that is clearly not the intent of Gewirth.
Gewirth himself has repeatedly given voice to ideas associated with morality and the application of rational thought upon actions taken by an agent. Though he demonstrates freely that he believes all people to possess rights in equality he also demonstrates that actions outside of the "moral" by any agent do not prove an immoral counterpart to the moral. In his infamous work "The Immoral Sense," he argues that very point and describes the ideas of morality to further explain why even those who have had human freedom removed forcibly removed from their lives still require a certain level of application of human rights.
A we must note a distinction between positive and normative conceptions of morality. In general, a morality is a set of rules or directives for actions and institutions, with accompanying attitudes or feelings, especially as these are held to support or uphold what are taken to be the most important values or interests of persons or recipients other than or in addition to the agent. The rules purport to be categorically obligatory in that compliance with them is held to be mandatory for persons regardless of their personal inclinations or their institutional affiliations that are not directly connected with the rules themselves.
Defining morality as such Gewirth demonstrates that in cases of the demonstration of immoral acts the agent is acting in a manner which violates the ability of another to exercise rational freedom and therefore should be punished accordingly, but not necessarily be viewed as capable of only immoral sense.
Gewirth's own words provide an important transition to the application of his theory to not only psychosocial and political issues but also to legal theory and practice.
Gewirth argues that agents and prospective purposive agents (PPAS) contradict that they are PPAS if they do not accept the PGC [Principle of Generic Consistency], or if they violate its precepts in practice. He contends that it is no less than incoherent to suppose that it is rational for PPAS to guide their conduct by principles prescribing in opposition to the PGC.
In the above quote from Alan Norrie's work, Closure or Critique: New Directions in Legal Theory, there is a clear explanation for the ideas of Gewirth in "The Immoral Sense." Norrie explains that Gewirth demonstrates that immoral actions define the agent not as immoral but irrational and therefore somewhat outside the protections of human rights. Laws in this case are then defines, rightly as moral judgments, rules made to determine the rational and criminalize the irrational, where it is to such a degree that it impairs other's rights.