Political and Naturalistic Conceptions of Human Rights: A False Polemic?

In: Journal of Moral Philosophy
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  • 1 New York University
  • 2 McGill University

What are human rights? According to one longstanding account, the Naturalistic Conception of human rights, human rights are those that we have simply in virtue of being human. In recent years, however, a new and purportedly alternative conception of human rights has become increasingly popular. This is the so-called Political Conception of human rights, the proponents of which include John Rawls, Charles Beitz, and Joseph Raz. In this paper we argue for three claims. First, we demonstrate that Naturalistic Conceptions of human rights can accommodate two of the most salient concerns that proponents of the Political Conception have raised about them. Second, we argue that the theoretical distance between Naturalistic and Political Conceptions is not as great as it has been made out to be. Finally, we argue that a Political Conception of human rights, on its own, lacks the resources necessary to determine the substantive content of human rights. If we are right, not only should the Naturalistic Conception not be rejected, the Political Conception is in fact incomplete without the theoretical resources that a Naturalistic Conception characteristically provides. These three claims, in tandem, provide a fresh and largely conciliatory perspective on the ongoing debate between proponents of Political and Naturalistic Conceptions of human rights.

  • 1

    A. John Simmons, ‘Human Rights and World Citizenship: The Universality of Human Rights in Kant and Locke,’ in Justification and Legitimacy: Essays on Rights and Obligations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 185.

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  • 2

    Charles Beitz, The Idea of Human Rights (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). What we are calling the Naturalistic Conception has also been called the “orthodox” view (Charles Beitz, 'Human Rights and the Law of Peoples,' in The Ethics of Assistance: Morality and the Distant Needy, ed. Deen Chatterjee (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004); John Tasioulas, 'Taking Rights out of Human Rights,' Ethics 120 (2010)); and the “traditionalist” account (Joseph Raz, 'Human Rights without Foundations,' in The Philosophy of International Law, ed. Samantha Besson and John Tasioulas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010a)).

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  • 3

    John Rawls, The Law of Peoples: With “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited” (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1999).

  • 4

    Beitz 2009, op. cit.; Raz 2010a, op. cit.

  • 5

    Beitz 2004, p. 197.

  • 6

    Beitz 2004, p. 198.

  • 7

    Raz 2010a, p. 324.

  • 8

    Rawls 1999, p. 79.

  • 9

    Rawls 1999, p. 80.

  • 10

    Rawls 1999, p. 68.

  • 11

    Rawls 1999, p. 81.

  • 12

    Raz 2010a, p. 328.

  • 13

    Raz 2010a, p. 329.

  • 14

    Raz 2010a, pp. 330-332.

  • 15

    Beitz 2009, p. 101.

  • 16

    Rawls 1999, p. 81.

  • 17

    Rawls 1999, pp. 3-4.

  • 18

    Rawls 1999, pp. 71-78.

  • 19

    Rawls 1999, p. 68.

  • 20

    Rawls 1999, p. 74.

  • 21

    Rawls 1999, pp. 59-60.

  • 22

    Rawls 1999, p. 68.

  • 23

    Rawls 1999, p. 55.

  • 24

    Rawls 1999, p. 37.

  • 25

    Beitz 2009, pp. 99-100.

  • 26

    Beitz 2004, p. 202; Beitz 2009, p. 72.

  • 27

    Beitz 2004, p. 198; Beitz 2009, p. 57.

  • 29

    Beitz 2009, p. 57.

  • 30

    Beitz 2009, pp. 56-57.

  • 31

    Raz 2010b, p. 41.

  • 32

    Raz 2010a, p. 334.

  • 33

    James Griffin, On Human Rights (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 25.

  • 34

     See, e.g., S. Matthew Liao, ‘Agency and Human Rights,’ Journal of Applied Philosophy 27, no. 1 (2010); John Tasioulas, ‘Human Rights, Universality and the Values of Personhood: Retracing Griffin’s Steps,’ European Journal of Philosophy, 10, no. 1 (2002).

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  • 36

    Griffin 2008, p. 50.

  • 37

    Tasioulas 2010, p. 671.

  • 38

    Tasioulas 2010, p. 672.

  • 39

    Tasioulas 2010, p. 672.

  • 41

    Griffin 2008, p. 50. See also Pablo Gilabert, 'Humanist and Political Perspectives on Human Rights,' Political Theory 39 (2011).

  • 42

    Griffin 2008, p. 50.

  • 44

    Tasioulas 2010, pp. 670-671.

  • 45

    Tasioulas 2010, p. 670.

  • 46

    Tasioulas 2010, p. 671.

  • 47

    Tasioulas 2010, p. 671.

  • 48

    Tasioulas 2010, p. 671.

  • 50

    Raz 2010a, p. 335.

  • 51

    Raz 2010a, p. 335.

  • 53

    Beitz 2009, pp. 55-56.

  • 54

    Beitz 2009, p. 56.

  • 55

    Tasioulas 2010, p. 648.

  • 56

     See, e.g., Liao 2010, op. cit.

  • 57

    M. Cranston, What Are Human Rights? (London: Bodley Head, 1973), p. 69.

  • 60

    Beitz 2009, p. 109.

  • 61

    Raz 2010a, p. 329.

  • 63

     See Griffin 2008.

  • 64

    Beitz 2009, p. 109.

  • 65

    Beitz 2009, pp. 105-106.

  • 66

    Raz 2010a, p. 336.

  • 67

    Rawls 1999, p. 65.

  • 68

    Rawls 1999, p. 80, n. 23.

  • 69

    Rawls 1999, p. 65.

  • 70

    Raz 2010a, p. 330.

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