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Unit of study_

PHIL3613: Philosophy of Human Rights

Semester 2, 2020 [Normal day] - Camperdown/Darlington, Sydney

This unit addresses central themes from the history and philosophy of human rights. Topics may include justifications for human rights, dangers and threats to human rights, the meaning and role of dignity, tensions between human rights and state sovereignty, as well as wider themes in political thought such as equality, liberty, and power. Thinkers may include Burke, Wollstonecraft, Paine, Marx, Arendt, Levi, Rawls, and Nussbaum.

Unit details and rules

Unit code PHIL3613
Academic unit Philosophy
Credit points 6
12 credit points at 2000 level in Philosophy or 12 credit points at 2000 level in Politics or 12 credit points at 2000 level in International Relations
Assumed knowledge


Available to study abroad and exchange students


Teaching staff

Coordinator Alexandre Lefebvre,
Type Description Weight Due Length
Participation Weekly Questions
10% -
Outcomes assessed: LO1 LO3 LO2
Assignment Midterm Essay
40% - 2000 words
Outcomes assessed: LO1 LO3 LO2
Assignment Final Essay
50% - 2500 words
Outcomes assessed: LO1 LO2 LO3

Assessment summary

Weekly questions: Each week students are expected to prepare two questions based on the relevant reading. Each question can be as long as a paragraph or as short as a sentence. The questions will be counted, not graded. But to count they must reflect a real engagement with the relevant reading. (E.g., to ask when reading Burke, “Why do the rights of man make Burke so angry?” is not a real engagement. A good question is: “Burke objects to both the content (e.g., equality) as well as the form (e.g., as abstract) of natural rights. What is the relationship between the two?”) These questions must be submitted on Canvas before 11:59pm on Tuesday before class. Please write your name and tutorial time (e.g., Jane Smith, Wednesday 2-3 pm). Each set of questions will count as 1% toward your final grade, up to a maximum of 10%.

Midterm Essay: On September 23rd, you will receive a 2000 word (maximum) midterm assignment. Essay questions will be posted on Canvas. The midterm assignment is due October 14th. A late penalty of 5% per calendar day will apply, and work submitted more than ten working days after the deadline will not be assessed and a mark of zero will be recorded.

Final Essay:  On November 11th, you will receive a 2500 word (maximum) final essay assignment. Essay questions will be posted on Canvas. The final essay is due December 2nd. A late penalty of 5% per calendar day will apply, and work submitted more than ten working days after the deadline will not be assessed and a mark of zero will be recorded.


Assessment criteria

The University awards common result grades, set out in the Coursework Policy 2014 (Schedule 1).

As a general guide, a High distinction indicates work of an exceptional standard, a Distinction a very high standard, a credit a good standard, and a pass an acceptable standard.

Result name

Mark range


High distinction

85 - 100



75 - 84



65 - 74



50 - 64



0 - 49

When you don’t meet the learning outcomes of the unit to a satisfactory standard.


For more information see

For more information see guide to grades.

Late submission

In accordance with University policy, these penalties apply when written work is submitted after 11:59pm on the due date:

  • Deduction of 5% of the maximum mark for each calendar day after the due date.
  • After ten calendar days late, a mark of zero will be awarded.

Academic integrity

The Current Student website  provides information on academic integrity and the resources available to all students. The University expects students and staff to act ethically and honestly and will treat all allegations of academic integrity breaches seriously.  

We use similarity detection software to detect potential instances of plagiarism or other forms of academic integrity breach. If such matches indicate evidence of plagiarism or other forms of academic integrity breaches, your teacher is required to report your work for further investigation.

You may only use artificial intelligence and writing assistance tools in assessment tasks if you are permitted to by your unit coordinator, and if you do use them, you must also acknowledge this in your work, either in a footnote or an acknowledgement section.

Studiosity is permitted for postgraduate units unless otherwise indicated by the unit coordinator. The use of this service must be acknowledged in your submission.

Simple extensions

If you encounter a problem submitting your work on time, you may be able to apply for an extension of five calendar days through a simple extension.  The application process will be different depending on the type of assessment and extensions cannot be granted for some assessment types like exams.

Special consideration

If exceptional circumstances mean you can’t complete an assessment, you need consideration for a longer period of time, or if you have essential commitments which impact your performance in an assessment, you may be eligible for special consideration or special arrangements.

Special consideration applications will not be affected by a simple extension application.

Using AI responsibly

Co-created with students, AI in Education includes lots of helpful examples of how students use generative AI tools to support their learning. It explains how generative AI works, the different tools available and how to use them responsibly and productively.

WK Topic Learning activity Learning outcomes
Week 01 Introduction - The Theory and History of Human Rights Lecture (2 hr) LO1 LO2
Week 02 Alexis de Tocqueville, Ancien Regime and the French Revolution (1856) Lecture and tutorial (3 hr) LO1 LO2 LO3
Week 03 Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) Lecture and tutorial (3 hr) LO1 LO2 LO3
Week 04 Thomas Paine, Rights of Man (1791) Lecture and tutorial (3 hr) LO1 LO2 LO3
Week 05 Mary Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), and Alexandre Lefebvre, Human Rights and the Care of the Self (2018) Lecture and tutorial (3 hr) LO1 LO2 LO3
Week 06 Karl Marx, “On the Jewish Question” (1844) Lecture and tutorial (3 hr) LO1 LO2 LO3
Week 07 Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) Lecture and tutorial (3 hr) LO1 LO2 LO3
Week 08 Primo Levi, Survival at Auschwitz (1947) Lecture and tutorial (3 hr) LO1 LO2 LO3
Week 09 The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), Judith Shklar, “The Liberalism of Fear” (1989), and Michael Ignatieff, Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry (2001) Lecture and tutorial (3 hr) LO1 LO2 LO3
Week 10 Martha Nussbaum, Creating Capabilities (2010) Lecture and tutorial (3 hr) LO1 LO2 LO3
Week 11 Sally Engle Merry, Human Rights and Gender Violence, and John Rawls, “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited.” Lecture and tutorial (3 hr) LO1 LO2 LO3
Week 12 J.M. Coetzee, The Lives of Animals Lecture and tutorial (3 hr) LO1 LO2 LO3

Attendance and class requirements

  • Attendance: According to Faculty Board Resolutions, students in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences are expected to attend 90% of their classes. If you attend less than 50% of classes, regardless of the reasons, you may be referred to the Examiner’s Board. The Examiner’s Board will decide whether you should pass or fail the unit of study if your attendance falls below this threshold.
  • Lecture recording: Most lectures (in recording-equipped venues) will be recorded and may be made available to students on the LMS. However, you should not rely on lecture recording to substitute your classroom learning experience.
  • Preparation: Students should commit to spend approximately three hours’ preparation time (reading, studying, homework, essays, etc.) for every hour of scheduled instruction.

Study commitment

Typically, there is a minimum expectation of 1.5-2 hours of student effort per week per credit point for units of study offered over a full semester. For a 6 credit point unit, this equates to roughly 120-150 hours of student effort in total.

Required readings

All required readings are in the coursepack.

An aim of this class is to closely engage with a limited number of primary texts in order to dwell on key themes, and, more generally, to slow reading down. Students are not expected to read more widely than the required readings in the coursepack. If you wish to consult secondary material, however, I have placed the following two texts on reserve at Fisher Library (hardcopy only):

• Furet and Ozouf, eds. A critical dictionary on the French Revolution (1989). This volume has an outstanding entry on Tocqueville’s Ancien Regime. 944.04 282

• Lynn Hunt. Inventing Human Rights: a History (2007). Cultural history of human rights, concentrating on the 18th century. 323.09 5

The following texts are on eReserve, available through the link on the Canvas site: 

• Jack Donnelly. Human Rights Theory and Practice (2013). Good general introduction to the theory and practice of human rights. 

• Douzinas and Gearty, eds. The Meaning of Rights: the Philosophy and Social Theory of Human Rights (2014). Wide range of essays on topics in philosophy of human rights.

Two more useful resources: 1. The Cambridge Companion series. These volumes are provide excellent introductions to dedicated authors and topics, such as Burke, Tocqueville, Wollstonecraft, Levi, and Arendt. They are available in fulltext through Fisher Library. 2. The online Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. It has useful entries on Arendt, Burke, Human Rights, Rights, Respect, and much more. If you wish for further advice on secondary readings please send me an email.

Learning outcomes are what students know, understand and are able to do on completion of a unit of study. They are aligned with the University's graduate qualities and are assessed as part of the curriculum.

At the completion of this unit, you should be able to:

  • LO1. analyse core concepts in the philosophy of human rights, such as dignity, rights, duty, sovereignty, natural law, universality, witnessing, and violence
  • LO2. distinguish traditions in the philosophy of human rights, such as natural law, positivist, liberal, and capabilities
  • LO3. demonstrate critical and charitable reading skills of primary texts.

Graduate qualities

The graduate qualities are the qualities and skills that all University of Sydney graduates must demonstrate on successful completion of an award course. As a future Sydney graduate, the set of qualities have been designed to equip you for the contemporary world.

GQ1 Depth of disciplinary expertise

Deep disciplinary expertise is the ability to integrate and rigorously apply knowledge, understanding and skills of a recognised discipline defined by scholarly activity, as well as familiarity with evolving practice of the discipline.

GQ2 Critical thinking and problem solving

Critical thinking and problem solving are the questioning of ideas, evidence and assumptions in order to propose and evaluate hypotheses or alternative arguments before formulating a conclusion or a solution to an identified problem.

GQ3 Oral and written communication

Effective communication, in both oral and written form, is the clear exchange of meaning in a manner that is appropriate to audience and context.

GQ4 Information and digital literacy

Information and digital literacy is the ability to locate, interpret, evaluate, manage, adapt, integrate, create and convey information using appropriate resources, tools and strategies.

GQ5 Inventiveness

Generating novel ideas and solutions.

GQ6 Cultural competence

Cultural Competence is the ability to actively, ethically, respectfully, and successfully engage across and between cultures. In the Australian context, this includes and celebrates Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, knowledge systems, and a mature understanding of contemporary issues.

GQ7 Interdisciplinary effectiveness

Interdisciplinary effectiveness is the integration and synthesis of multiple viewpoints and practices, working effectively across disciplinary boundaries.

GQ8 Integrated professional, ethical, and personal identity

An integrated professional, ethical and personal identity is understanding the interaction between one’s personal and professional selves in an ethical context.

GQ9 Influence

Engaging others in a process, idea or vision.

Outcome map

Learning outcomes Graduate qualities

This section outlines changes made to this unit following staff and student reviews.

Additional session on human rights education (week 11)

Here is a more precise summary of the unit of study content:

This year we will look at the long­term theory and history of human rights, from its classical origins in the French Revolution to the contemporary period. In particular, we will ask how and why the two main events of political modernity – the French Revolution, and the Second World War and the Holocaust – led to declarations of human rights. Our first cluster of texts covers great classical authors of the human rights tradition: Burke, Paine, Tocqueville, Wollstonecraft, and Marx. Here we will see how the Declaration of the Rights of Man closes out the feudal age of inequality and privilege, for better or for worse. Our second set of texts addresses two issues. With Arendt and Levi we will examine the unprecedented attack on human dignity in the Second World War. And, with our contemporary authors, we will track the rise of the contemporary global human rights regime. Through the study of these two foundational events, we will achieve a concrete understanding of the shifting purposes and practices of human rights and also the different kinds of abuses they are meant to check.


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