Universidade Autónoma de Lisboa
e-ISSN: 1647-7251
Vol. 11, Nº. 1 (May-October 2020), pp. 1-17
Paulo Vitorino Fontes
Holder of a Ph.D. in Legal-Political Theory and International Relations and of Master and Bachelor
Degrees in Sociology. He has participated in social intervention projects within the scope of
European programmes. Author and participant in several projects, he has had coordination roles
at Novo Dia - Association for Social Inclusion (IPSS). He was Regional Director of the Social
Solidarity Section. He is a researcher at CICP - Centre for Research in Political Science at the
University of Évora (Portugal). His main research interests are Political Science and Political
This paper examines some aspects of Axel Honneth’s normative theory, focusing on his theory
of recognition, that can contribute to the renewal of human rights. To this end, it will start by
making a few philosophical considerations about the justification and content of human rights,
exploring the dialectic on the unity and diversity of human rights, in order to liaise the struggle
for human rights and the struggle for recognition. It intends to move human rights away from
the current inherent to Kantian philosophical thought, weakened by the decentralization of
the European culture and conducted by 20th century postmodern reflections and by the
critique of its categorical imperative as a pure duty of submission. It also examines the way
to open space for a renewal of the discourse so as to enable it to confront delimited cultural
and historical challenges. Other critical perspectives are included in this theoretical
association, whether regarding the anti-utilitarian aspect, or the aspect of the gift paradigm,
in order to contribute to the ethical renewal of human rights.
Human Rights, Honneth, recognition, gift, ethics
How to cite this article
Fontes, Paulo Vitorino (2020). "Axel Honneth's normative proposal for the renewal of Human
Rights". JANUS.NET e-journal of International Relations, Vol. 11, N.º 1, May-October 2020.
Consulted [online] on the date of the last visit, https://doi.org/10.26619/1647-7251.11.1.1
Article received on July 14, 2019 and accepted for publication on March 30, 2020
JANUS.NET, e-journal of International Relations
e-ISSN: 1647-7251
Vol. 11, Nº. 1 (May-October 2020), pp.1-17
Axel Honneth’s normative proposal for the renewal of human rights
Paulo Vitorino Fontes
Paulo Vitorino Fontes
Human rights result from the process of the formation of the modern world. Their
configuration is influenced by the general characteristics of the transition to modernity.
As Gregorio Peces-Barba (1989: 268) underlines, human rights are not the abstract result
of a rational reflection on the individual and his dignity, but a response to concrete
problems in which they were undermined or diminished in the absolute State and in the
context of the religious wars that took place in the 16th century.
The first individual, political and procedural rights that appear in history and which form
the core of the declarations of the liberal revolution are not the result of a great rational
reflection, but a response to a concrete situation existing in Europe and in the colonies
of European countries in the 16
and 17
centuries. Although they were based on general
ideas as they were being conceived, a consensus emerged on the initial catalogue of
human rights. Thus, as Peces-Barba (1989: 269) points out, any attempt to justify or
rationally renew human rights must take into account their historical starting point, which
were dissent and struggle regarding the legal and political situation of the absolute State.
Over the years and struggles, the French Declaration of 1789 and the American
Declarations of Rights provided the occasion for the historical emancipation of the
individual from the social groups to which he had always been subjected: the family, the
clan, the will and the religious orders. As Fábio Konder Comparato (2010: 68) stresses,
it is important to mention that in this respect, the ground had been prepared over two
centuries earlier. On the one hand, the Protestant reformation had decisively emphasized
the importance of individual awareness regarding morals and religion. On the other hand,
the culture of the exceptional personality, of the hero who forges his destiny and the
destiny of his people, had been developed, especially in Italy during the Renaissance.
The evolution of human rights became much more substantive from 1945 onwards with
the emergence of World War II, after massacres and atrocities of all kinds, which started
with the strengthening of state totalitarianism in the 1930s,
humanity has understood, more than at any time in history, the
supreme value of human dignity. Suffering as a matrix for
understanding the world and men, according to the luminous lesson
This paper results from the last chapter, revised and updated, of the author's doctoral thesis (Fontes, 2016).
JANUS.NET, e-journal of International Relations
e-ISSN: 1647-7251
Vol. 11, Nº. 1 (May-October 2020), pp.1-17
Axel Honneth’s normative proposal for the renewal of human rights
Paulo Vitorino Fontes
of Greek wisdom, has deepened the historical affirmation of human
rights. (Comparato, 2010: 68-69)
The Universal Declaration approved by the United Nations General Assembly on 10
December 1948 and the International Convent