The Morality of Human Rights

39 Pages Posted: 9 Jun 2013 Last revised: 22 Jun 2015

Multiple version iconThere are 2 versions of this paper

Date Written: June 4, 2013


[For a later version of material in this paper, see these two papers: "Human Rights Theory, 1: What Are 'Human Rights'? Against the 'Orthodox' View" (2015),; "Human Rights Theory, 2: What Reason Do We Have, if Any, to Take Human Rights Seriously? Beyond 'Human Dignity'" (2015),]

In the period since the end of the Second World War, there has emerged what never before existed: a truly global morality. That morality — which I call “the morality of human rights” — consists not only of various rights recognized by the great majority of the countries of the world as human rights, but also of a fundamental imperative that directs “all human beings” to “act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” The imperative — articulated in the very first article of the foundational human rights document of our time, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — is fundamental in the sense that it serves, in the morality of human rights, as the normative ground of human rights.

I begin, in the first section of this essay, by explaining what the term “human right” means in the context of the internationalization of human rights. I also explain both the sense in which some human rights are, in some legal systems, “legal” rights and the sense in which all human rights are “moral” rights.

Then, in the longer second section, I turn to the inquiry that is my principal concern in this essay: Why should one take seriously the imperative that serves, in the morality of human rights, as the normative ground of human rights? That is, what reason or reasons does one have, if any, to live one’s life in accord with the imperative to “act towards all human beings in a spirit of brotherhood”?

This essay, the final draft of which will be published in a symposium issue of the San Diego Law Review, was my contribution to the conference on “The Status of International Law and International Human Rights” that was held at the University of San Diego School of Law on May 3-4, 2013, under the auspices of the School’s Institute of Law and Philosophy. Some of the material in this essay is drawn from my new book, Human Rights in the Constitutional Law of the United States (2013). Most of the material here that is not drawn from my book was first presented in a lecture I was honored to deliver at Santa Clara University in March 2013, under the auspices of the Bannon Institute of the Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education.

Suggested Citation

Perry, Michael John, The Morality of Human Rights (June 4, 2013). 50 San Diego Law Review 775 (2013), Emory Legal Studies Research Paper No. 13-240, Available at SSRN: or

Michael John Perry (Contact Author)

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