Adam Etinson: Human Rights and Other Things, Too.

Legal-phi is finally back after a long (and unplanned) break! This month I’m interviewing Adam Etinson, a Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of St. Andrews since September 2016.

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Welcome to Legal-Phi, Adam. What brought you to philosophy? And why did you start working in moral and political philosophy?

Adam: Nice to be here, Lucas. Thanks for interviewing me! I came to philosophy through a process of elimination. As an undergraduate at McGill University, I changed my major several times, trying different things (physics, anthropology, art, and neuroscience). In my third year, under pressure to graduate relatively soon, I realized that the only courses I consistently enjoyed were philosophy courses. And so, I switched into philosophy and never left! It helped that philosophy focused on “big” questions (like the existence of the external world, or the nature of consciousness, etc.), which is what I think I was seeking in the other majors I tried out. But it also helped that philosophy could be about almost anything, and so (in theory) embraced my other interests.

As far as deciding to do moral and political philosophy in particular, this happened fairly late, in graduate school at Oxford. I entered Oxford hoping to study continental philosophy, and in particular Hegel. But when it became obvious that Oxford was not the best place to do that, and that I could address some of the questions that were on my mind by studying Anglo-American political philosophy (which Oxford was much stronger in) I decided to do that instead. That turned to be a pretty consequential decision for me. Hopefully it was for the best!

You have been working on the philosophy of human rights for the past few years. To get a broader sense of your views on the topic, maybe you could start by telling us what you take human rights to be. Am I right to assume that you are neither entirely satisfied with naturalistic, nor with political conceptions of human rights?

Adam: My inclinations are towards the naturalistic approach to human rights, which thinks of them as rights that we have simply in virtue of being human (the political approach, just for reference, thinks of human rights as rights that play a distinctive political role in international affairs, such as limiting national sovereignty). I like the naturalistic approach in part for its simplicity, elegance, and intuitiveness. But what I like most about it is that it straightforwardly captures the idea that human rights are universal rights – the rights of all human beings – which seems to me absolutely central to the whole project.

That doesn’t mean I’m satisfied with all versions of the naturalistic approach (and there are many to choose from), but I do think they’re at least generally headed in the right direction. To be honest, so far, I haven’t felt the need to fully declare myself one way or the other in this debate. For the last several years, I’ve focused instead on background methodological questions in the philosophy of human rights – for instance, about what philosophical theories of human rights, broadly speaking, are ultimately meant to accomplish, and how they ought to do so. I recently edited a large volume for OUP on this, in fact, which will come out this March. (More info here).

How about the objection that human rights are too abstract to be useful to both moral theory and legal practice? What are your views on it?

Adam: Human rights are often stated abstractly, or in ways that don’t entirely clarify important practical questions about what they require, and of whom, but there are often good reasons for this. For one, it is sometimes advantageous to leave specific details out, when formulating a universal right, so that local authorities can work out its practical implications for themselves. Leaving room for local interpretation can be a way of giving due respect to legitimate domestic political authorities (as well as citizens themselves), but it is also often a sensible way of acknowledging that local authorities are, because of their unique placement, likely to know more about how best to implement a right in the local environment.

Another reason to formulate human rights abstractly is to ensure their universality. For instance, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) recognizes a right to a standard of living adequate for one’s health and well-being (Article 25). The standard of “adequacy” here is left fairly open – there is no specific amount of wealth or income picked out by the right – and that’s entirely deliberate. The drafting committee knew that if it were to pick a specific number, such as $60 US dollars a week (which was roughly the average weekly household income in the US in 1948), this would have diminished the universal applicability of the right, both across the planet and over time. As strange as it may sound, in some countries in 1948, $60 US a week would surely have been more luxurious than adequate, given the cost of living. And today, $60 a week definitely isn’t going to be sufficient for many people. In a way, abstraction helps us cut through all this variation and get to the universal point, which is that human beings need some minimum level of material well-being to get along in the world. Once we recognize this need, and the associated right, in its core universal form, the varying specifics of implementation can then be worked out in each case. For these reasons and others, I think abstraction can often be a very useful thing in human rights discourse, in fact.

Changing the topic a bit, can you tell us about your recent work on ethnocentrism? What is ethnocentrism? And why do you think it is a type of bias?

Adam: I think of ethnocentrism as a bias that is grounded in our “cultural” identity in some way. It can take a cognitive form. For instance, if you are dogmatically attached to beliefs (say, in the unreality of climate change) that are common in your culture, simply because they are common in your culture, then you are in that respect ethnocentric, in my view. It may take a moral form. If you morally discriminate against people who are culturally different from you, simply because they are culturally different from you, then you are, again, ethnocentric in that respect.

This definition of ethnocentrism is different from the classical one, which dates back at least to 1907, in the work of William Graham Sumner, an early American anthropologist. And the difference matters. According to Sumner, ethnocentrism consists in a belief in the superiority of one’s culture. If we think of ethnocentrism as a specific belief, or set of beliefs, then it can be avoided simply by avoiding that belief or set thereof, to the extent that this is possible. But if we think, as I’m suggesting, of ethnocentrism as a general species of bias, then it is entire modes of thinking, evidence-gathering, and reasoning that we need to cautiously avoid. The problem becomes much bigger, or more pervasive. And it’s important to recognize this if we are serious about tackling it, as I think we should be.

I know you’ve been working on a paper on human dignity. As you know, there has been a lot of controversy about the meaning of human dignity and the usefulness of this concept both to discussions in moral philosophy and legal practice. What is your view? What is it to violate one’s dignity? Do you think there is anything distinctive about violating one’s dignity?

Adam: I think talk about human dignity is indeed meaningful and useful. It helps give instant articulation to the important idea that there is something fundamentally sacred about human life and human beings (and we can affirm this without denying the equal sacredness of other species or forms of life). That said, I’m not so sure that philosophers have always been good at homing in on what’s special about appeals to human dignity, or their distinct contribution to moral thought, and this has probably helped fuel criticism that appeals to dignity are an empty vehicle for other moral concerns (e.g., autonomy, or the separateness of persons, etc.).

As I see it, and I’m in line with scholars like Jeremy Waldron and Avishai Margalit on this, the notion of dignity is continuous with the old but still familiar notion of honour. So, when we say that human beings all have a certain “dignity,” what we are really saying is that they all deserve a certain basic level of social respect or even reverence. This isn’t just a matter of respecting autonomy, or someone’s rights; it’s about adopting a general attitude of respect towards others, and behaving in a way that is consonant with that attitude. Sometimes social conventions determine which behaviours are consonant and which are not. A great analogy, I think, can be found in the way we treat religious objects. As a child, I went to Jewish school, and was told that, when one drops the bible (or tanach, as it was called), they have to rectify this sacrilege by picking it up and lightly kissing it. This, I think, was ultimately about instilling a certain reverential attitude towards the text. And it sort of worked! I am not religious but I still feel superstitiously anxious when I drop a bible, as rare as that may be. When we talk about treating human beings with dignity, or in accordance with their dignity, I think we’re talking about the same sort of thing: establishing certain deep superstitions, or even taboos, around the treatment of persons.

Do you have any other ongoing project that you could briefly tell us something about?

Adam: Sure, I have a few. Most recently, I began thinking about what you might call “breakthrough” conversations: that is, conversations in which interlocutors who are deeply divided on some issue nonetheless come to understand or in some way sympathize with one another’s point of view. I want to try and think about what happens when conversations across profound divides go well (rare as this may be), about what’s distinct or different about such conversations (a philosophical question), and also about what makes those conversations more likely to occur (an empirical question). I want to base this project on concrete examples of breakthrough moments. So, do let me know if you can think of any nice instances of this, and that goes for your readers as well. Please email me!

Most challenging aspect of being a professional philosopher?

Adam: Staying philosophically engaged with the world, as opposed to just the academy.

Any advice to early-career colleagues or graduate students?

Adam: Persist.

When not working…?

Adam: You can usually find me on the basketball courts, wearing a headband.

Could you list two papers in moral or legal philosophy that you think are either underrated or largely unknown?


Cheshire Calhoun recently published a paper in Ethics, entitled “On Being Content with Imperfection”. It’s new, so probably not that well known yet. It’s also fantastic.

Charles Taylor’s 1993 essay, “Explanation and Practical Reason”, is not so well known (I don’t think). But it’s incredible.

Last question: could you list two philosophy books and two non-philosophy books that have been influential to your views?


John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859)

David Wiggins, Ethics: Twelve Lectures in the Philosophy of Morality (2006)

Barbara Graziosi, The Gods of Olympus: A History (2014)

Georges Perec, Species of Spaces, and Other Pieces (1997)