Philosophical Foundations of Human Rights

Philosophical Foundations of Human Rights

Philosophical Foundations of Human Rights

Philosophical Foundations of Human Rights


What makes something a human right? What is the relationship between the moral foundations of human rights and human rights law? What are the difficulties of appealing to human rights? This book offers the first comprehensive survey of current thinking on the philosophical foundations of human rights. Divided into four parts, this book focusses firstly on the moral grounds of human rights, for example in our dignity, agency, interests or needs. 'Secondly, it looks at the implications that different moral perspectives on human rights bear for human rights law and politics. Thirdly, it discusses specific and topical human rights including freedom of expression and religion, security, health and more controversial rights such as a human right to subsistence. The final part discusses nuanced critical and reformative views on human rights from feminist, Kantian and relativist perspectives among others. The essays represent new and canonical research by leading scholars in the field. Each part is comprised of a set of essays and replies, offering a comprehensive analysis of different positions within the debate in question. The introduction from the editors will guide researchers and students navigating the diversity of views on the philosophical foundations of human rights.


John Tasioulas

I. Foundations Without Foundationalism

The nature of human rights, the subject we are talking about when we invoke this globally resonant category of practical standards, is a distinct matter from their foundations or grounds. On the former question there is disagreement as to the merits of the orthodox view, according to which human rights are moral rights possessed by all human beings simply in virtue of their humanity, Even for those with orthodox sympathies, however, the question of grounds remains to be faced: what are the conditions that make it the case that anything is a right of this kind, and are they ever satisfied? At most, orthodoxy about the nature of human rights is committed to the thesis that the satisfaction of the relevant conditions is a matter for natural reason and hence underwrites the objective truth or correctness of positive human rights claims. But the nature of those conditions is notoriously the subject of deep and persistent disagreement. Some philosophers echo contemporary human rights instruments by presenting human dignity as the foundation, others appeal to a schedule of basic human needs or universal interests, yet others to the value of personhood or some combination of these factors. and of course there are still those who insist, against all secular doctrines of the kind just listed, that a compelling grounding of human rights is inescapably theistic in character.

I distinguish the contention that human rights have foundations, a version of which I defend in this chapter, from certain foundationalist deformations it is liable to undergo. Foundationalism, which elaborates erroneously on the bare orthodox thesis that human rights have objective grounds, comes in both meta-ethical and normative versions. Meta-ethical foundationalists offer defective accounts of what objectivity is, how it is secured, or the nature of its implications. One example is the naturalist thesis that the objective grounding of human rights consists in their being logically derivable exclusively from an array of value-neutral facts about human nature or a metaphysical human essence. Another is the historicist

For a defence of orthodoxy, see J. Tasioulas, ‘On the Nature of Human Rights’, in The Philosophy of Human Rights: Contemporary Controversies, ed. G. Ernst and J-C Heilinger (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2012), 17–59.

I speak interchangeably of the foundations or grounds or basis or justification of human rights throughout this chapter. in each case, I am concerned with what it is that makes it the case that something qualifies as a human right on an orthodox construal. This constitutive issue is distinct from, although also related to, the epistemic one of finding reasons for believing that X is or is not a human right. One may have good reasons for such a belief without being in possession of an account of the foundations of human rights.

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