In today’s social media universe, debates about society, government, and individual rights run rampant; however, these opinions are mostly just that—opinions. But Hampden-Sydney students in Dr. Marc Hight’s Philosophy of Political Economy class did more than just rant vaguely online. They had to create a Declaration of Human Rights based on the philosophical principles studied throughout the semester—and back it up to boot.
Each student created his own declaration, similar to the United Nation’s Declaration of Human Rights, for a fictional society. Dr. Hight explained, “The declarations outline what universal core rights a government must respect and protect in order to be legitimate.” A preamble laid out the values represented, followed by articles stating the specific rights given.
So what values were represented in these fictional societies? The right to freedom and the right to flourish were chief among them. These values were at the heart of the students’ documents, guiding all the claims that followed. The specific rights varied—some obvious or more expected articles defended the right to access information, the right of expression, or the right to life. Other examples included the right to universal basic income, the right to exit a country, the right to protection from threats, or the right to sell one’s own property—including one's own body.
Once the documents were prepared, students had to present and defend their declarations in front of their peers and professors, a task that forced them to put their rhetoric classes to good use by stating their claims clearly and concisely. Some in the audience found unexpected loopholes, while others argued that rights could contradict each other, prompting the students to defend their declarations with contemplative and calculating responses.
Dr. Hight noted, “I wanted the students to evaluate what makes a government a legitimate government.” The presentations were thought provoking, raising questions about what our own society values, and the principles it should protect. “I assign this, or something like this, in the course every time I teach it. All of the students did well this year.”