Human Rights in Heaven

Adam Etinson, ed., 2014, Human Rights: Moral or Political? (OUP)

35 Pages Posted: 13 May 2014 Last revised: 17 May 2014

Date Written: May 3, 2014


Even in the stereotypically hospitable precincts of Anglo-American liberalism, philosophers largely disdained natural or "human" rights from approximately the 1790s to the 1970s; and even thereafter, it was really only John Rawls's move to consider the implications of rights for the international order (which he had neglected in reviving rights for the purposes of theorizing domestic justice) in the late 1990s that has sparked the interesting and contentious debate concerning the nature, foundation, and implications of "human rights" among philosophers today. This paper inquires into the value of that discussion for those interested in international and transnational human rights politics and largely finds it wanting, with special attention to the example of John Tasioulas's inaugural lecture as Quain Professor of Jurisprudence as well as Jeremy Waldron's recent call to shift from a "human concern" to a "human bearer" approach to the topic. At a minimum, my goal is to insist that philosophers have an honest answer to what broader purposes they are serving when they bring their unique skills to a fraught global debate - and what risks of their own they incur given the temptation of falling back on their talents for affirming normativity and clarifying norms rather than explaining what the rest of us do with them in a complex world of passion and force. Slightly more boldly, the point is to call for an alternative version of philosophy - including an alternative philosophy of human rights - that embraces the situation that outsiders acknowledge as an unavoidable condition: caught in the rough and tumble or outright strife of politics, in a historically constituted world, that even philosophy cannot escape.

Keywords: human rights, jurisprudence, legal theory

Suggested Citation

Moyn, Samuel, Human Rights in Heaven (May 3, 2014). Adam Etinson, ed., 2014, Human Rights: Moral or Political? (OUP), Available at SSRN:

Samuel Moyn (Contact Author)

Yale University ( email )

MA 02138
United States
2128543009 (Phone)


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