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Reconceptualizing Human Rights

33 Pages Posted: 7 Jul 2010 Last revised: 25 Oct 2011

Marcus Arvan

University of Tampa

Date Written: July 7, 2010


This paper defends several highly revisionary theses about human rights. §1 shows that the phrase “human rights” refers to two distinct types of moral claims. §§2-3 argue that several longstanding problems in human rights theory and practice can be solved if, and only if, the concept of a “human right” is replaced by two more exact concepts:

International human rights: moral claims sufficient to warrant coercive domestic and international social protection.

Domestic human rights: moral claims sufficient to warrant coercive domestic social protection but only non-coercive international action.

§3 then argues that because coercion is central to both types of human right, and coercion is a matter of justice, the traditional view of human rights – that they are normative entitlements prior to and independent of substantive theories of justice – is incorrect. Human rights must instead be seen as emerging from substantive theories of domestic and international justice. Finally, §4 uses this reconceptualization to show that only a few very minimal claims about international human rights are presently warranted. Because international human rights are rights of international justice, but theorists of international justice disagree widely about the demands of international justice, much more research on international justice is needed – and much greater agreement about international justice should be reached – before anything more than a very minimal list of international human rights can be justified.

Keywords: human rights

Suggested Citation

Arvan, Marcus, Reconceptualizing Human Rights (July 7, 2010). Available at SSRN: or

Marcus Arvan (Contact Author)

University of Tampa ( email )

401 W. Kennedy Blvd.
Tampa, FL 33606-1490
United States
520-245-7607 (Phone)

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