Skip to main content

Human Rights, Liberty and Limits

Go Search
New Atlas
Atlas, A-Z
Atlas Maps
MPP/MPA Programs
Core Topics
Illustrative Courses
Topic Encyclopedia
Concept Dictionary
Career Tips
Best Practices Project


A Teaching Topic in Ethics and Accountability

Human Rights, Liberty and Limits

This teaching topic explores different human rights issues that will be familiar to most students and it will place a special attention to the rights to free speech. The course will ask students to consider the circumstances under which governments may be justified in restricting certain types of speech. Specific case studies include consideration of the appropriate government response to neo-nazi parades and militant Islamist preaching. It also examines the extent to which governments should attempt to guide the behavior of individuals in ways that promote the interests of those individuals. The topic encourages students to consider whether governments have a responsibility to help “protect people from themselves,” and the consequences of bad decisions. This topic deals with a range of options at the disposal of paternalistic policymakers, including outright restrictions on harmful behaviour and softer “nudges” that encourage individuals to make better choices. Moreover, students will be familiarized to the restrictions that will be placed upon them in their potential work places and the role of "whistle-blowers."

Topic Learning Outcome: Students will be familiar with the contours of ongoing debates about when government is justified in taking paternalistic policy decisions designed to protect individuals from themselves. They will be aware of the arguments for and against this type of intervention in a range of different contexts.

Core Concepts associated with this Topic: Compliance; Enforcement; Framing of Information; Ideas in Good Currency; Issue-Framing; Judicial Activism; Legitimate Coersion; Liberal Democracy; Liberalism; Pluralism; Pluralist State; Rights Talk; Social Diversity Thesis; Tenure; Direct Transparency; Transparency

Recommended Reading

Harvard University: DPI 201 (The Responsibilities of Public Action)

Minersville School District v. Gobitis, 310 U.S. 586 (1940) (opinion of Justice Frankfurter), excerpts.

West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943) (opinion of Justice Jackson and dissenting opinion of Justice Frankfurter), excerpts.

European Court of Human Rights, Leyla Şahin v. Turkey (No. 44774/98) Judgment, 29 June 2004, excerpts.

Amy Gutmann, “How Liberal is Democracy?” in Liberalism Reconsidered, eds. Douglas MacLean and Claudia Mills (1983), pp. 25-50.

Jeremy Waldron, “Rights and Majorities: Rousseau Revisited,” in Liberal Rights (1993), pp. 392-421, 468-471.

Frederick Schauer, “The Phenomenology of Speech and Harm,” Ethics 103:4 (1993), pp 635-653.

Village of Skokie v. National Socialist Party of America, Supreme Court of Illinois (1978), in Philosophy of Law, 4th ed. (1991), eds. Joel Feinberg and Hyman Gross, pp 311-314.

Home Secretary of the United Kingdom, “Exclusion or Deportation from the UK on Non-Conducive Grounds: Consultation Document” (August 2005).

Daniel Hausman and Brynn Welch, “Debate: To Nudge or Not to Nudge,” Journal of Political Philosophy 18:1 (2010), 123-136

University of Georgia: PADP-6910 (Public Administration and Democracy)

Bertot, J. C., Jaeger, P. T., & Grimes, J. M. (2010). Using ICTs to create a culture of transparency: E-government and social media as openness and anticorruption tools for societies. Government Information Quarterly, 27(3), 264-271.

Brian Adams. (2004). “Public Meetings and the Democratic Process.” Public Administration Review. v.64 , 43.

Meyers, Robert, and Victoria Frigo. 2006. "Who's Advocating What Here?" Public Administration. Volume 88, no 2.

University of Toronto: PPG-2011 Ethics and the Public Interest

Dennis Thompson, “Democratic Secrecy,” Political Science Quarterly (Summer 1999), 181-193

Alasdair Roberts, “Secrecy and Security,” Ch. 2 of Blacked Out: Government Secrecy in the Information Age (Cambridge University Press, 2008), 27-50

Case: “International Transparency,” Ch. 6 of Archon Fung, Mary Graham, and David Weil, Full Disclosure: The Perils and Promise of Transparency (Cambridge University Press, 2008), 127-150

University of Southern California: PPD-667 (Public Ethics)

Bok, Sissela. Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life. New York: Vintage Books, 1979. Chpater 1 (IS the “Whole Truth” Attainable?) & Chpter 12 (Lies for the Public Good).

Warwick, Donald P. "The Ethics of Administrative Discretion." In Public Duties: The Moral Obligations of Government Officials, by Joel L. Fleishman, Lance Liebman and Mark H. Moore, 93-127. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Bok, Sissela. "Blowing the Whistle." In Public Duties: The Moral Obligations of Government Officials, by Joel L. Fleishman, Lance Liebman and Mark H. Moore, 204-220. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981

University of Michigan: PubPol-580 (Values, Ethics and Public Policy)

Jeremy Waldron, “Rights,” and Charles Beitz, “Human Rights,” in Robert Goodin, Phillip Pettit, and Thomas Pogge, A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy (2007), 745-54.

Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1973), 28-33.

M. ten Have et al., “Ethics and Prevention of Overweight and Obesity,” Obesity Reviews 12 (2011): 669-79.

Lawrence O. Gostin, “Bloomberg’s ‘Nanny State’: Refuting Opposition to the “New” Public Health,” Yahoo! News, December 2, 2013.

Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness (2008), 1-14, 72-77, 229-50.

Daniel M. Hausman and Brynn Welch, “To Nudge or Not to Nudge,” Journal of Political Philosophy 18 (2010): 123-36.

United Nations Human Rights Council, Human Rights in Palestine and Other Occupied Arab Territories: Report of the UN Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, September 2009, excerpts.

Asa Kasher, “A Moral Evaluation of the Gaza War—Operation Cast Lead,” Jerusalem Issue Briefs 9.18 (February 4, 2010).

Avishai Margalit and Michael Walzer, “Israel: Civilians and Combatants,” New York Review of Books, May 14, 2009. 

Terrance McConnell, “Whistle-Blowing,” in A Companion to Applied Ethics, ed. R. G. Frey and Christopher Health Wellman (2003), 570-82.

Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill, and Laura Poitras, “Edward Snowden: The Whistleblower Behind the NSA Surveillance Revelations,” The Guardian, June 9, 2013.

Daniel Brunstetter and Megan Braun, “The Implications of Drones on the Just War Tradition,” Ethics and International Affairs 25.3 (Fall 2011), 337-358.

Bradley Strawser, “Moral Predators,” Journal of Military Ethics 9 (2010): 342-68.

 Sample Assessment Questions:

1.) Identify instances where the uses of "nudges" by the government were more effective in shaping the behaviour of the citizens. Discuss another possible instance where a nudge might prove to be more useful in encouraging individuals to make better choices.

2) Under what circumstances is government justified in withholding information from the general public?

Page created by: Ben Eisen on 15 August 2013, last updated by James Ban 17 August, 2015


Important Notices
© University of Toronto 2008
School of Public Policy and Governance