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Human Rights and Modern Society: A Sociological Analysis from the Perspective of Systems Theory

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This article argues that the systems theory of Niklas Luhmann prepares the ground for a genuinely sociological theory of human rights. Through a presentation of Luhmann’s work on human rights, it describes the historical and sociological processes that make visible why human rights emerge as a central feature of modern society. It is argued that the emergence of fundamental freedoms and human rights can be related to the dominant structure of modern society, that is, functional differentiation. Human rights are considered as a social institution, whereby modern society protects its own structure against self-destructive tendencies. By giving inalienable and equal rights to all human beings, society ensures that the differentiation between different functional subsystems is maintained and at the same time institutionalizes specific mechanisms to increase stability and protection of the individual. The article first examines some features of the systems-theoretical framework that are used to describe and analyse the issue of human rights. Next, it presents a brief overview of the semantic evolution of human rights. This reconstruction focuses on the question how the modern semantics of human rights can be linked to a specific structural societal transformation. The second part of the essay is devoted to the social function of human rights. After focusing on the general function, it makes a distinction between ‘fundamental freedoms’ on the one hand, and the ‘rights of equality’ on the other.
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Document Type: Original Article

Affiliations: Faculty of Social Sciences, Catholic University of Leuven, Leuven, Belgium

Publication date: 2002-06-01

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