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Human rights without human supremacism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

Will Kymlicka*
Philosophy Department, Queen's University, Kingston, Canada


Early defenders of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights invoked species hierarchy: human beings are owed rights because of our discontinuity with and superiority to animals. Subsequent defenders avoided species supremacism, appealing instead to conditions of embodied subjectivity and corporeal vulnerability we share with animals. In the past decade, however, supremacism has returned in work of the new ‘dignitarians’ who argue that human rights are grounded in dignity, and that human dignity requires according humans a higher status than animals. Against the dignitarians, I argue that defending human rights on the backs of animals is philosophically suspect and politically self-defeating.

Copyright © Canadian Journal of Philosophy 2017

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Presented as the CJP Distinguished Lecture at the annual meeting of the Canadian Philosophical Association in May 2017. This paper draws extensively on ideas developed in collaborative work with Sue Donaldson, as part of our ongoing work in elaborating a political theory of animal rights. Earlier versions were presented at the Donia Human Rights Center at the University of Michigan, and the Groupe de recherche en éthique environnementale et animale (GREEA) in Montreal. Thanks to the audiences for their questions, and to Kiyoteru Tsutsui and Sophia Rousseau-Mermans for the invitations. Thanks also to Maneesha Deckha, Sue Donaldson, Jess Eisen, Raffael Fasel, Kyle Johannsen, Andrew Lister, Alistair Macleod, Josh Milburn, Christine Straehle and Saskia Stucki for helpful written comments.


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