Ethics Updates


Rights Theory

A Survey of Selected Internet Resources on Human Rights

There are a number of helpful resources relating to human rights on the internet, including:

Important Documents in the History of Human Rights

NPR's "Talk of the Nation"

Homosexuality and the Church   Host:  Ray Suarez  Guests: Michael Aydee, National Field Organizer for "More Light Presbyterians" and an openly gay elder; Father Bruce Williams, Theological advisor to Sister Gramick and Father Nugent for their appearance before a Vatican commission, Teacher, University of St-Thomas (Rome); Christopher Wolfe, Professor and Chair of the Political Science Department at Marquette, University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Editor, Homosexuality & American Public Life (Spence l999).  Description: The Vatican ordered an American priest and nun to end their thirty-year-old ministry to gays and lesbians after an investigation concluded they had failed to comply with the church's teaching on the "intrinsic evil of homosexual acts." A United Methodist Church minister in Chicago was convicted of officiating at the union of two gay men in March and suspended
from his duties. Presbyterians allow their clergy to be homosexual as long as they are celibate. Is the church an unwelcome place for homosexuals? Join Ray Suarez and guests to discuss the ways mainstream churches address the spiritual needs of Christian homosexuals.  July 21, 1999

Supreme Court/Car Searches   Host:  Ray Suarez  Guest: Steven Shapiro, Legal Director of the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union)   Description: The Supreme Court recently ruled that police have the authority to search the
belongings of passengers in vehicles driven by suspects. Privacy advocates are crying foul, claiming the Court has legalized guilt by association and further eroded Fourth Amendment rights. Join Ray Suarez and guests for a look
at the tension between personal privacy and law enforcement...on the next Talk of the Nation, from NPR News.
April 12, 1999

Kids and Free Speech   Host:  Neal Conan  Guests: Patrick Trueman, Director of Government Affairs and Legislative Counsel, American Family Association, Washington, DC, Former Chief of the Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section, Criminal Division of the U.S. Dept. of Justice, Washington, DC;  Ann Beeson, National Staff Attorney, ACLU, national headquarters.  Description: A student is reprimanded by his school for setting up a web page for Chihuahua haters. Lockers are seached, underground papers banned, dress codes established ... all in the name of protecting children and maintaining control. But what about the rights of kids? Join guest host Neal Conan for a discussion about children and their constititutional rights ... on the next Talk of the Nation, from NPR News. April 6, 1998.

Wiretapping   Host:  Neal Conan   Guests:  Susan Landau, Co-author, Privacy on the Line: The Politics of Wiretapping and Encryption [MIT Press, 1998]; Whitfield Diffie, Engineer, Sun Microsystems, Inventor, Public Key Cryptography, Co-author, Privacy on the Line [MIT Press, 1998]; Marc Rotenberg, Director, Electronics Privacy Information Center, Author, Technology & Privacy on the New Landscape. Description:  Linda Tripp was wearing an FBI recording device when she met her friend Monica Lewinsky for drinks and conversation. The presidential crisis stemming from that taping has raised the public's concern about the privacy of personal communication. While the independent counsel's office maintains that a wire is a common law enforcement practice, many say the technique raises troubling legal issues. Join guest host Neal Conan for a conversation about wiretapping, privacy and the law ... on the next Talk of the Nation, from NPR News.  February 2, 1998.

No Smoking in Bars   Host: Frank Stasio Guests: Tami Dower, The Derby Club, Los Angeles, CA.  Description:  On New Year's Day, California became the first state with mandated smoke-free bars. Bar owners must now post "no smoking" signs at all entrances and ask smoking customers to go outdoors. Those bars that don't comply will be fined. The controversial measure has angered both smokers and bar owners who fear it will hurt business. Join guest host Frank Stasio for a look at this landmark ban on smoking in bars.  January 6, 1998

A Bibliographical Survey of Philosophical Literature on Human Rights Hinman, Ethics: A Pluralistic Approach to Moral Theory

(Bibliographical essays are drawn from Lawrence M. Hinman, Ethics: A Pluralistic Approach to Moral Theory, 3rd Edition [Wadsworth, 2002] © 2002

The classical source

The classical source for discussions of rights is John Locke’s Two Treatises on Government (New York: New American Library, 1965); the Second Treatise is available on the web at and at gopher:// For a collection of critical essays on the Treatises, see John Locke's Two Treatises of Government: New Interpretations, edited by Edward J. Harpham (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1992); for critical essays on various aspects of Locke’s political philosophy, see John Locke: Critical Assessments, edited by Richard Ashcraft (London: Routledge, 1991). Also see A. John Simmons, The Lockean Theory of Rights (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992). For a communitarian critique of Locke, see Thomas L. Pangle, The Spirit of Modern Republicanism: The Moral Vision of the American Founders and the Philosophy of Locke (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988).


Several excellent anthologies contain a number of the most influential philosophical articles on rights in recent years. A. I. Melden’s Human Rights (Belmont: Wadsworth, 1970) contains excerpts from the Virginia Declaration of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, and the U. N. Universal Declaration of Rights as well as standard articles by MacDonald, Hart, Vlastos, Wasserstrom, and Morris. David Lyons’ Rights (Belmont: Wadsworth, 1979) contains the Hart and Wasserstrom articles and pieces by Rawls, Dworkin, Hill, Nozick, Feinberg, and Lyons himself. Jeremy Waldron’s Theories of Rights (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984) contains papers by MacDonald, Vlastos, Hart, Gewirth, Lyons, Scanlon, Dworkin, Mackie and Raz. Also see Human Rights, edited by Ellen Paul, Fred Miller, and Jeffrey Paul (Oxford: Blackwell, 1984), which was originally published as Volume 1, Number 2 of Social Philosophy & Policy; other issues of this journal dealing with rights include Reassessing Civil Rights (vol. 8, no. 2); and Economic Rights (vol. 9, no. 1). Also see the special issue of Ethics, Vol. 92, No. 1 (October, 1981) devoted to rights. For an excellent collection of articles on contemporary moral issues that center on questions of rights, see Patricia Werhane, A. R. Gini, and David T. Ozar, Philosophical Issues in Human Rights (New York: Random House, 1986).

Libertarian Approaches to Rights

Two of the most influential libertarian approaches to rights are Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974) and Ronald Dworkin, Taking Rights Seriously (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977). Tibor Machan’s Individuals and Their Rights (LaSalle, Illinois: Open Court, 1989) contains a detailed libertarian defense of the primacy of human rights.

John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice

The treatment of rights in John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971) has also been quite influential. Some of the most important work in this area has been done by Joel Feinberg, whose essays on this topic are collected in his Rights, Justice, and the Bounds of Liberty (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980). Alan Gewirth first fully presented his account of human rights in his Reason and Morality and elaborated them further in Human Rights: Essays on Justification and Applications (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982). For a careful overview of the conceptual distinctions involved in thinking about rights, see Alan White, Rights (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984). Judith Jarvis Thomson has developed a comprehensive account of rights in her Rights, Restitution, and Risk: Essays in Moral Theory, edited by William Parent (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986) and The Realm of Rights (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990). Carlos Santiago Nino’s The Ethics of Human Rights (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991) is s strong defense of human rights by someone who has lived through many abuses of rights in Argentina as well as the trials that followed them. Carl Wellman’s Real Rights (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995) offers a strong defense of rights. The Oxford Amnesty Lectures 1993, On Human Rights, edited by Stephen Shute and Susan Hurley New York: Basic Books, 1993), contains excellent lectures by Stephen Lukes, John Rawls, Catharine MacKinnon, Jean-François Lyotard, Agnes Heller, and Jon Elster.

Surveys of the philosophical literature on rights

There have been several extended surveys of the philosophical literature on rights: Rex Martin and James W. Nickel, "Bibliography on the Nature and Foundations of Rights, 1947-1977," Political Theory, Vol. 6 (1978), pp. 395-413; Martin and Nickel, "Recent Work on the Concept of Rights," American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 17 (1980), 165-80; Tibor R. Machan, "Some Recent Work in Human Rights Theory," American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 17 (1980), 103-16.

Rights and Utilitarianism

Important discussions of the relationship between rights and utilitarianism are to be found in David Lyons’ "Utility and Rights," Nomos XXIV: Ethics, Economics and the Law (New York: New York University Press, 1982), and Alan Gewirth’s response to Lyons, "Can Utilitarianism Justify Any Moral Rights?" Human Rights (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982). More recently, Russell Hardin’s "The Utilitarian Logic of Liberalism," Ethics, 97, 1 (October, 1986), 47-74, presents a utilitarian justification of rights; Arthur Kuflik’s "The Utilitarian Logic of Inalienable Rights," ibid., 75-87, criticizes Hardin and pursues an alternative consequentialist path to the justification of inalienable rights. Hardin’s position is further developed in his Morality within the Limits of Reason (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), especially Chapters Three and Four. Richard B. Brandt’s Morality, Utilitarianism, and Rights (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992) contains two of his most important essays on the place of rights in utilitarianism, "The Concept of a Moral Right and Its Function," and "Utilitarianism and Moral Rights."

Critique of the appeals to rights

For a provocative contemporary critique of the appeals to rights, see Mary Ann Glendon’s Rights Talk. The Impoverishment of Political Discourse (New York: The Free Press, 1991); Chapter Three contains a fascinating history of the development of the right to privacy which forms the basis for my treatment of that topic here. The connection between appeals to rights and individualism is discussed in critical detail in MacPhearson's Possessive Individualism. More recently, Joseph Raz has pursued this line of criticism in his "Against Rights-Based Morality," reprinted in Waldron’s Theories of Rights. Robert Louden’s "Rights Infatuation and the Impoverishment of Moral Theory," Journal of Value Inquiry, Vol. 17, No. 2 (1983), 87-102 argues strongly against the tendency to see the moral life solely in terms of rights. For a much more positive evaluation of this connection, see George Kateb’s "Democratic Individuality and the Meaning of Rights," in Liberalism and the Moral Life, edited by Nancy L. Rosenblum (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989), 183-206.

Animal Rights

For a consideration of the issue of animal rights, see the anthology edited by Tom Regan and Peter Singer, Animal Rights and Human Obligations (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1976). Also see Regan’s All that Dwell Therein: Essays on Animal Rights and Environmental Ethics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982) and Singer’s Animal Liberation (London: Cape, 1976).

Economic Welfare Rights

For the case in favor of economic welfare rights, see especially Henry Shue’s Basic Rights. Subsistence, Affluence, and U.S. Foreign Policy. For a strong defense of welfare rights, see Rodney Peffer, "A Defense to Rights to Well-Being," Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Fall, 1978), 65-87. Also see, most recently, the issue of Social Philosophy & Policy, Vol. 9, No. 1 (Winter, 1992), devoted to economic rights. Included in this volume is Gregory S. Kavka’s "Disability and the Right to Work," one of the very few philosophical pieces on the rights of the disabled.

Rights and Respect

The link between rights and respect is developed most forcefully in Joel Feinberg’s "The Nature and Value of Rights," reprinted in his Rights, Justice, and the Bounds of Liberty, 143-58. It also plays a key role in Thomas Hill’s "Servility and Self-Respect.;" that essay and his later reflections on it, "Self-Respect Reconsidered," are reprinted his Autonomy and Self-Respect (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. 4-18, 19-24.

Rights and the Family

A. I. Melden’s Rights and Persons (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980) contains a sensitive and nuanced discussion of the issue of rights and the family. His more recent Rights in Moral Lives (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988) provides a perceptive historical overview of rights theory, including a very illuminating chapter on Mill and human rights and a provocative discussion of animal rights. Loren E. Lomasky’s Persons, Rights, and the Moral Community (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987) develops a libertarian concept of rights that attempts to be sensitive to issues of community and individual projects. For a perceptive Kantian approach to this issue, see Onora O’Neill "Children’s Rights and Children’s Lives," Ethics, Vol. 98 (1988), reprinted in her Constructions of Reason (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), pp. 187-205. Also see Susan Moller Okin, Justice, Gender, and the Family (New York: Basic Books, 1989) and John Hardwig, "Should Women Think in Terms of Rights?", Ethics, 94 (1984), pp. 441-55. Also see

History of the Concept of Natural Rights

For a thorough history of the concept of natural rights, see Richard Tuck, Natural Rights Theories: Their Origin and Development (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979). For a philosophically sophisticated discussion of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, see James W. Nickel, Making Sense of Human Rights (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987). On the specifically American tradition of rights, see the essays in The Constitution of Rights. Human Dignity and American Values, edited by Michael J. Meyer and W. A. Parent (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992).

Discussion Questions

  1. In his book If I Were a Rich Man Could I Buy a Pancreas? (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), Arthur L. Caplan has discussed a troubling new problem. In recent years in countries where it is not illegal, poor people have begun to sell some of their own body parts such as eyes or kidneys to rich people in need of a transplant. Do people own their own bodies? If they do, are they entitled to sell parts of them if they wish to do so? Why or why not?
  2. Recently, a number of American firms have changed their employee health benefits in such a way that the coverage of AIDS and HIV-infected employees has been eliminated or severely curtailed. Critics of such changes have protested that it is a violation of the rights of those employees. Defenders of the policies have often cited utilitarian grounds for their decisions or, in some cases, what might be called corporate-egoist grounds (i.e., what will produce the best consequences for my company). Do such changes violate the affected employees’ rights? If so, which right(s) in particular? Why or why not?
  3. An NBC television series, "Reasonable Doubt," contains an unusual character: a female Assistant District Attorney who is deaf (presumably since early childhood) and has severe difficulty speaking. She has an interpreter, presumably paid for by the state, to translate what other people say into sign language and to translate her sign language into the spoken word. To what extent are governments obligated to provide equal access to everyone, including those who are physically impaired? What limits, if any, should apply to the government's obligation to provide equal access? Do private employers have the same obligations?
  4. Talk with someone who has some type of physical handicap. How do they view this issue? What are their reactions to your views?
  5. Smoking and Rights. Do I have a right to smoke cigarettes in public? Why or why not? In arriving at an answer to this question, what kinds of factors is it legitimate to consider on each side of the question? Do different philosophical traditions typically present different answers to this question? Explain. (For further information, see Robert E. Goodin, No Smoking: The Ethical Issues [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989].) Join an on-line discussion of this issue in the Discussion Forum of Ethics Updates at
  6. The United States Constitution does not mention (let alone, guarantee) its citizens the right to privacy. Nevertheless, Americans consider privacy to be a basic human right. How would you defend this concept? (P.S. Examine Supreme Court cases on the subject, such as Griswold vs. Connecticut [1965]], or the writings of Justice Douglas. The classic article is by Warren and Brandeis, in Harvard Law Review [1890]). What rights override the right to privacy? When?
  7. The movie Gandhi presents interesting issues about the relationship between rights and ethical relativism. Are rights relative to whatever the majority—or, in the case of the British in India, the minority who held the majority of political power—believes, or are there basic human rights which no political regime can legitimately override? Why or why not? Do laws such requiring that people of one nationality carry special identification violate their rights? Again, why or why not?