Standard Rights Theories


Rights theorists vary quite a bit but many reject egoism and utilitarianism. One reason why many rights advocates reject utilitarianism is that what is most good and least bad overall might "outweigh" the good of individuals or minorities. Rights theories emphasize the dignity and good of individuals, and so common sorts of rights are to life, freedom and welfare. There are six main theories for defending rights:

  1. Intuitionism: Intuitionist rights theorists "intuit" or believe after due consideration that individuals have dignity, and the good of the individual cannot be outweighed by society.

  2. Traditionalism: These rights theorists draw on the liberal tradition that gives rise to rights and appeal to others operating in the same tradition.

  3. Compassion: Some believe that out of compassion we must grant that every individual has rights.

  4. Immanuel Kant’s theory: This German philosopher held that every individual must be treated as an "end in himself and never as a means only. " This means that everyone must be respected, or treated as an end (i.e., everyone’s ends or purposes must be respected), and not merely as a means to other people’s ends (i.e., exploited). Kant’s test of morality was "universalizability": that is, for any given principle that is proposed as moral, can we consistently will it as universal, for all moral agents to follow? For example, Kant held that a person cannot will the breaking of a promise, for universalized, that would mean that the promise-breaker could not depend on anyone else keeping their promise either, and the whole institution of promising would thereby collapse.

  5. John Rawls’ theory: Rawls was a philosopher from Harvard University who believed in the Kantian idea that an individual cannot be sacrificed even for the good of society. Rawls asked us to do a thought experiment. That is, he asked us to imagine that we are spirits who are not yet born in a human body. In this "original position," as Rawls called it, we do not know if we will be born rich or poor, black or white, intelligent or less intelligent, male or female, and so on. Rawls believed that principles of justice that people would agree to in this "original position" would be fair because no one would make principles that are sexist, racist, etc., lest oneself be discriminated against once one is born.

  6. Alan Gewirth’s theory: Gewirth held that everyone needs a certain amount of freedom and well-being in order to do anything at all. This is true. Someone who was completely tied up and unfree, or in the throes of a terrible illness and thus unwell, could hardly be expected to accomplish much. Therefore, Gewirth reasoned, everyone should assert rights to freedom and well-being. However, Gewirth defended what he called the “principle of generic consistency” (which just means being consistent or fair in one’s treatment of kinds of things or genera, which means treating like kinds of things alike unless there is a good reason to do otherwise. Due to this principle, we must treat individuals alike unless there is a good reason to the contrary, and so we must also extend rights to other persons than ourselves.


  1. What are some possible reasons in favour of adopting standard rights theories as a guide to peace and conflict?

  2. What are some possible reasons against adopting standard rights theories as a guide to peace and conflict?

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