Between nomos and telos
in Critical theory and human rights
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This chapter provides a summary of Oakeshott’s thinking with respect to law and the State. It observes that the crucial element in this is the ambiguity of both phenomena. Law is sometimes conceived as general conditions of just or moral conduct, and sometimes as a “rule-book” for achieving particular purposes; and the State is sometimes conceived as a purposeless relationship between autonomous cives related only in their shared acknowledgement of a system of neutral laws, and sometimes as a purposive association for the achievement of nebulous goals such as the “common good”. The chapter then considers international law and international association in the same terms, particularly with respect to human rights, and notes that international law and international community are likewise ambivalent concepts vacillating between opposing poles roughly similar to those appearing in the context of the State. It suggests in particular that international human rights law is situated between two opposing ideals, as the conditions of just conduct on the part of States (nomocracy), or as a set of rules specifying ends and the means of achieving them (teleocracy), and that it will orient itself in one direction or another under the influence of both circumstance and prevailing ideas.

Critical theory and human rights

From compassion to coercion


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