The Moral Dimensions of Human Rights

The Moral Dimensions of Human Rights

The Moral Dimensions of Human Rights

The Moral Dimensions of Human Rights


Many books on human rights either concentrate on human rights as fundamental moral rights with little attention to international human rights, or discount moral human rights and focus on international human rights.The Moral Dimensions of Human Rightstakes a broad approach by discussing all three species of human rights - moral, international, and national -at length. At the same time, Carl Wellman pays special attention to the moral reasons that are relevant to each kind of human rights.

The book has three parts. In the first, Wellman develops an original view of the nature and grounds of moral human rights based on his previous publications in the general theory of rights, especially Real Rights. The next part explains how moral human rights are relevant both to the justification and to the interpretation of human rights in international law and identifies several other relevant moral considerations. In the third part, the author argues that different kinds of moral and international human rights ought to be incorporated into national legal systems in four distinct ways-recognition in a written constitution, judicial decisions, legislation, and ratified human rights treaties.


The purpose of this book is to identify and explain the most important moral dimensions of human rights. I shall argue that one of these is fundamental moral rights that one possesses as a human being. But both international law and most contemporary national legal systems confer human rights as well. Although some of these legal human rights are analogues of and justified as protections for noninstitutional moral human rights, others reflect and are justified by other purposes of international or national law. In fact, there is a complex interplay between the various moral dimensions of moral, international, and national human rights. I hope to clarify these relationships and thereby contribute to our understanding and evaluation of human rights.

When I began thinking seriously about human rights, the available theories of moral human rights were seriously defective. Human rights were identified by labels, such as “the right to life,” that do not specify their content with any precision. Hence, one cannot know what obligations or duties they imply. Does the human right to life require others to provide the means to sustain one’s life or only to refrain from taking one’s life? Presumably, the answer to this and similar questions depends upon the grounds of moral human rights, but the literature of that time provided no convincing theory of the grounds of human rights.

Although I recognized that what was most needed was an understanding of the moral reasons that ground human rights, I believed that one could not know what evidence was required to establish the reality of any human right until one knows what it means to assert that it exists. Therefore, I proposed a new conceptual analysis of moral human rights. First, one should take legal rights as models of all species of rights, including moral rights. Second, one should analyze the content of any human right in terms of Hohfeld’s fundamental legal conceptions or their moral analogues. Then, and only then, could one identify the grounds of any human right. I assumed that knowing the grounds of any right would enable one to define its specific content and that that in turn would enable one to know what duties it imposes upon second parties.

Carrying out this project has taken three decades and resulted in several books, especially A Theory of Rights, 1985, and Real Rights, 1995. The focus of this book is both broader and narrower than that of my previous . . .

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