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Four Challenges Confronting a Moral Conception of Universal Human Rights

27 Pages Posted: 14 Feb 2014 Last revised: 30 May 2015

Eric D. Blumenson

Suffolk University Law School

Date Written: May 2015


This Essay describes some fundamental debates concerning the nature and possibility of universal human rights, conceived as a species of justice rather than law. It identifies four claims entailed by such rights and some significant problems each claim confronts. The designation “universal human rights” explicitly asserts three of them: paradigmatic human rights purport to be (1) universal, in that their protections and obligations bind every society, regardless of its laws and mores; (2) human, in that the rights belong equally to every person by virtue of one’s humanity, regardless of character, social standing, disabilities, or other individual attributes; and (3) matters of right which afford certain fundamental individual interests priority over the community’s wishes or welfare. Human rights differ widely in what they afford a right to — life, religious liberty, adequate nutrition, etc. — but they all share a fourth claim on which each distinct right is premised: that (4) the right specified serves to safeguard one such fundamental priority interest.

Each of these claims generates uncertainty and disagreement, even among those who do not doubt the reality of universal human rights. Some theorists favor putting these some of these claims to rest by pursuing a different understanding of human rights that makes sense without them. The more modest aim of this Essay is to help inform that proposal by presenting these claims and challenges as concisely and transparently as possible.

Suggested Citation

Blumenson, Eric D., Four Challenges Confronting a Moral Conception of Universal Human Rights (May 2015). George Washington International Law Review, Vol. 47, p. 327, 2015; Suffolk University Law School Research Paper No. 14-6. Available at SSRN: or

Eric Blumenson (Contact Author)

Suffolk University Law School ( email )

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