Book Review

"Basic Rights: Subsistence, Affluence, and U.S. Foreign Policy" by Henry Shue

  • Princeton
  • Princeton University Press
  • 1980

Henry Shue, in attempting to augment the discourse in international relations that pertains to the “moral minimum…the lower limits on tolerable human conduct”, aims in Basic Rights to establish that the economic human right to subsistence should be considered equal to those of physical security and basic liberties that are widely considered to be necessities of human life. He does so on the basis that “basic rights” are those that are “essential to the enjoyment of all other rights”. That is, without those rights to subsistence, physical security, and various liberties — for example, the liberty of effective participation — no other rights can be enjoyed or exercised by a people. Shue argues then that if one lacks subsistence — and therefore the capability to sustain human life — then he or she cannot enjoy any rights at all, for he or she is threatened by the inability to sustain his or her life.

The author’s argument makes explicit his disagreement with what he deems traditional “North Atlantic” concepts — a school a thought that Shue characterizes primarily by its tendency to demarcate violations of political and civil rights from those of economic rights. He posits that this dichotomy is based on the inclination of “North Atlantic” thought to distinguish between “positive” rights and “negative” rights — positive rights being those that require people to act and negative rights being those that only require people to refrain from acting in ways that violate said rights. Shue argues that “U.S. government rhetoric routinely treats all ‘economic rights,’ among which basic subsistence rights are buried amidst many non-basic rights, as secondary and deferrable”.

The author notes that economic and basic subsistence rights are predominantly perceived as positive rights in that they require more action on the part of other people than do negative rights. However, he argues that this positive / negative dichotomy oversimplifies the complexity of the concept of rights — certainly those of subsistence rights — and that every right possesses both positive and negative aspects. For example, the right to subsistence implies not only the positive duties to “protect” from deprivation and to “aid” the deprived, but the negative duty to “avoid” depriving. Therefore, Shue argues, the tendency in and “North Atlantic” thinking — the context underlining U.S. policy towards human rights — to relegate economic rights to a position of secondary importance on the basis of its supposedly “positive” moral orientation is unfounded.

Shue provides substantive responses — thoughtfully demonstrated with explicit examples — to the three primary arguments that he perceives as challenges to the notion that subsistence rights ought to be considered basic human rights. Firstly, he confronts the practical contention that in providing for the minimum subsistence of all — which would supposedly result in a worldwide population growth — society would be unable to provide for the subsistence of future populations. The author presents compelling factual evidence in support of the notion that “improvements in living standards up to at least subsistence levels are powerfully supportive complements to…effective programs of population control through reduction in birth rates”. Shue persuasively argues on this basis against the notion of starvation as an optimal population control, as it is clearly not the only means to such an end.

Secondly, the author responds to the argument that guaranteeing subsistence rights would impose unlimited and unreasonable burdens upon the affluent. Shue argues here that to take such a position suggests that policy ought to favor the protection of one group’s affluence while simultaneously ignoring the subsistence of another — a position that the author claims to be “morally unacceptable”. Shue’s argument here rests upon assumptions that “if basic rights are guaranteed to some, they ought to be guaranteed to all”, and “inequalities that are incompatible with self-respect — that are humiliating — are impermissible”.

It should be noted that these assumptions depend on the author’s definition of what constitutes a moral justification for a right. While perhaps only a trivial weakness, I found this aspect of Shue’s argument to be lacking a necessary focus on the essence of rights themselves. As several aspects of the author’s overall argument rest upon his conception of a moral right as one that provides “(1) the rational basis for a justified demand (2) that the actual enjoyment of a substance be (3) socially guaranteed against standard threats”, further efforts to justify this moral outlook would have served to improve the substance of Shue’s philosophical argument. Nonetheless, he presents a compelling moralistic assertion that suggests that pragmatic social policies aimed at guaranteeing basic rights to subsistence would not entail any great sacrifices from the affluent — and furthermore that protestations on the part of deprived groups against institutional efforts to maintain the status quo of extreme inequality are inherently justified.

Thirdly, Shue confronts the challenge of national boundaries — the argument that recognition of basic subsistence rights would entail a morally unjustified burden on affluent nations, who would be expected to shoulder the weight of aiding economically-deprived nations despite the need to aid the deprived within their own nation. Through a thoughtful analysis of the moral and political implications of such an argument — which Shue terms “priority for compatriots”, Shue presents several considerate responses. He prudently notes that such theories depend on a “specification of what is distinctive of compatriots” and a “justification for attaching…considerable moral significance to the distinctive feature specified” — notions that Shue argue have little credibility within discourses on morality.

In political terms, he responds to the implications of common perceptions of government — one as the “trustee” of a nation and therefore responsible for advancing its nation’s interests against others, and the other as the institution best fit to provide for the welfare of its own nation. Shue suggests that the viewpoint that competition among trustee governments is the optimal arrangement has not been empirically established, nor has the premise that a nation’s own government necessarily has the will or the means to provide for the welfare of its people. In his view, nationalistic concepts must be subjected to philosophical scrutiny, and ought not to be considered an appropriate gauge for moral justifications. After all, Shue’s argument holds that basic subsistence rights are dependent on duties of the people — for example, the duty not to deprive — and not those of any government, whose services are “derived from the duties of its people”. Shue effectively asserts then that these basic moral rights are universal and therefore extend across national boundaries.

While Shue presents persuasive evidence for his arguments here, as well as a thoughtful philosophical analysis of the universality of moral rights, he lacks an adequate explanation as to why governmental institutions ought to — or can — act as instruments for individual claims of morality. That is to ask, how can we assume that the inherent duties of governmental institutions are defined by the moral duties of individual people rather than, for instance, institutional charters or customary laws? In this respect, Shue’s argument is not entirely substantiated in that further analysis of the connection between governmental institutions and moral rights or duties is necessary. This is especially true because Shue concludes on a note of prescription regarding the implications of his argument for U.S. policy.

In the name of basic rights then, Shue concludes by making four distinct recommendations for U.S. foreign policy, which can be briefly summarized as 1) explicit acknowledgement of rights to subsistence as basic human rights, 2) severance of economic aid to governments that systematically deprive peoples of subsistence rights, 3) severance of security aid to such governments, and 4) prevention of attempts by U.S.-based corporations to circumvent those policies that favor basic rights. Again, while Shue — from a philosophical standpoint — presents a persuasive moral argument for these radical transformations in U.S. policy, he does not adequately establish the basis for attaching the universal moral duties of individuals to governmental institutions. To do so would require a greater focus on the position of such moral arguments among social groups and political institutions.

Nevertheless, Henry Shue in Basic Rights presents a considerate, well-organized, and cogent philosophical argument in defense of the conception of the right to subsistence as a basic human necessity. While his prescriptions for U.S. foreign policy perhaps require further explication, Shue’s theoretical contributions certainly aid in establishing a context for a reasonable discussion of the existence of economic human rights — and are therefore considerable additions to the discourse in moral philosophy that pertains to those questions of human rights. The author’s arguments are thoughtful and coherent throughout, and have at the very least established that no basic right — namely that of subsistence — can merely be dismissed as secondary in public policy.


  1. Shue, Henry. Basic Rights: Subsistence, Affluence, and U.S. Foreign Policy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980.

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