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Human rights

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S105-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2017
Retrieved July 23, 2024, from

Article Summary

Human rights have traditionally been conceived as rights that people possess merely in virtue of being human. People may possess other rights if and because they possess a special status or occupy a particular role, such as citizen, doctor or promisee. But merely being human suffices to make people the bearers of human rights. Human rights are therefore universal rights and they are generally conceived as rights of fundamental moral significance. Historically, human rights have been closely associated with the earlier idea of natural rights, although many more rights are now claimed as human rights than were claimed as natural rights. Because they are possessed by people merely as natural persons, rather than by the grace and favour of governments, and because they constitute peculiarly strong moral entitlements, both natural rights and human rights have been used to set limits to political authority and to forestall the abuse of political power. Since the United Nations promulgated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948, human rights have been elaborated and provided for in a host of international declarations and conventions and in the domestic law of many states, so that human rights now form part of international and domestic law and shape the practice of politics both globally and domestically. That has led some philosophers to challenge the traditional understanding of human rights. Advocates of the political conception argue that we should conceive human rights in terms of the role they play in contemporary political practice, so that they are defined by their political purpose rather than by a supposed link to our humanity. Others suggest that philosophers should shift their focus from moral to legal human rights and should recognize that legal human rights cannot be conceived as merely moral human rights translated into law. In spite of these differences, the general idea of human rights is widely embraced in the contemporary world. Yet even those who champion human rights recognize that they present us with some difficult questions, such as how we are to give precision to their content, whether in the face of competing considerations we should always give overriding priority to human rights, and how far we can and should seek to reconcile human rights with cultural differences.

Citing this article:
Jones, Peter. Human rights, 2017, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S105-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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