Human Rights

Dr Tom Kerns













Discussion Questions for

Johannes Morsink, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
Origins, Drafting and Intent



  1. The American Anthropological Association expressed concerns about the effort to develop an International Bill of Rights (pp ix-x). Please describe what the AAA’s concerns were.

  2. Alasdair MacIntyre (p xi) claims universal moral norms are not possible. Please explain his reasons for this claim as best you understand them.

  3. What is the Human Rights Educator’s Network’s “fourth R” initiative (xii)?

  4. Please explain the distinction (p 15) between declarations and conventions.

  5. Note the distinction (p 20) between human rights as moral norms and human rights as legal instruments.
    1. What do you understand each of these to be?
    2. If you had to pick one of these two as more important, which, human rights as legal requirements or as moral norms, do you think are more important?

  6. On p 33 René Cassin is quoted as saying that with the UDHR “something new ha(d) entered the world,” and that the it was “the first document about moral value adopted by an assembly of the human community.” Why do you think Morsink considers that idea important enough to quote it?

  7. On p 34 Eleanor Roosevelt is quoted urging the drafters to produce “a clear, brief text, which could be readily understood by the ordinary man and woman.” It “was not intended for philosophers and jurists but for the ordinary people.”  The representative from the UK said that “if the Declaration was to reach the greatest possible number of people it was essential for it to be expressed in the simplest terms.” To what extent do you think the drafters succeeded in these goals?

  8. In the first paragraph of chapter 2 (p 36), Morsink poses a basic question. How would you phrase that question in your own words?

  9. He offers an answer to that question in the next several pages. What do you understand that answer to be?

  10. in the remaining pages of chapters 2.1 and 2.2, Morsink explains how the first ten articles of the UDHR were inspired in part by the recent experience of Hitler’s Germany. Pick one or two of those articles that are of particular interest to you and explain what you understand them to mean.

  11. Toward the end of chapter 8.2 (pp 295-96) Morsink discusses the “moral value” -- as opposed to legal enforceability -- of the UDHR. What do you understand him to mean by the “moral value” of  the UDHR?

  12. In those same pages Morsink seems to imply that it is actually better that the UDHR was designed as a declaration of moral value rather than as a legally enforceable instrument of international law.
    1. What do you understand his argument to be for this position?
    2. Do you agree?

  13. In chapter 8.4 (and a little more in 8.5) Morsink discusses the third recital of the UDHR’s Preamble and its implication that there is what he calls “the right to rebellion.”
    1. What do you understand him to mean by that?
    2. Do you agree that there is such a thing as a legitimate right to forcibly rebel against one’s own government?

  14. In chapter 8.5 Morsink discusses the UDHR Preamble and its statement of seven reasons why the rights in the UDHR needed to be proclaimed. Of those seven reasons, which one or two do you think are the most important? Why?

  15. What do you understand to be the main idea(s) of chapter 8.6? How important do you think those ideas are?