Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics

Special Section: Open Forum

Taking the “Human” Out of Human Rights


Human rights are universally acknowledged to be important, although they are, of course, by no means universally respected. This universality has helped to combat racism and sexism and other arbitrary and vicious forms of discrimination. Unfortunately, as we shall see, the universality of human rights is both too universal and not universal enough. It is time to take the “human” out of human rights. Indeed, it is very probable that in the future there will be no more humans as we know them now, because the further evolution of our species, either Darwinian or more likely determined by human choices, will, we must hope, result in the emergence of new sorts of beings better able to cope with the intellectual and physical challenges of the future. One example of the ways in which this is already happening is the sorts of cognitive enhancement that are already coming on stream. Another is signaled by stem cell research and the birth of regenerative medicine.

(Online publication February 19 2010)

John Harris, D.Phil., is the Sir David Alliance Professor of Bioethics, Institute of Medicine, Law and Bioethics, School of Law, University of Manchester, United Kingdom. He is co-editor of the Journal of Medical Ethics.


Work on this paper was supported by the iSEI Wellcome Strategic Programme in The Human Body, Its Scope, Limits and Future. It reflects my collaboration with John Sulston on many of the themes here developed. I have also benefitted from comments by John Coggan, Sarah Chan, and Annabelle Lever on earlier drafts of this paper.