Human Rights Theory, 1: What Are 'Human Rights'? Against the 'Orthodox' View

13 Pages Posted: 23 Apr 2015 Last revised: 8 May 2015

Date Written: April 22, 2015


This is the first in a series of papers I plan to post in the next few months. Each paper addresses an issue, or a set of related issues, in Human Rights Theory. The overarching subject of the first two papers — of this paper and the next one — is the morality of human rights, which has become, in the period since the end of the Second World War, a global political morality.

In this paper, I address the question “What are ‘human rights’?” Despite its ubiquity in contemporary political-moral discourse, the term “human rights” has no canonical meaning. As British philosopher James Griffin has observed, “[t]he term ‘human right’ is nearly criterionless. There are unusually few criteria for determining when the term is used correctly and when incorrectly — and not just among politicians, but among philosophers, political theorists, and jurisprudents as well.” John Tasioulas has claimed that the term has an “orthodox” meaning, which Tasioulas endorses: “rights possessed by all human beings simply in virtue of their humanity.” However, in the context of the principal contemporary discourse about human rights — discourse about international human rights — the orthodox meaning is mistaken, as I explain in this paper. I also explain here both the sense in which some human rights are legal rights and the sense in which some human rights are moral rights.

Then, in the next paper, I pursue this inquiry: What reason (or reasons) do we have, if any, to take human rights seriously; more precisely, what reason do we have, if any, to live our lives in accord with this imperative, which is articulated in the very first article of the foundational human rights document of our time, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and which is the very heart of the morality of human rights: “Act towards all human beings in a spirit of brotherhood.” See Michael J. Perry, “Human Rights Theory, 2: What Reason Do We Have, if Any, to Take Human Rights Seriously? Beyond ‘Human Dignity’” (2015),

Suggested Citation

Perry, Michael John, Human Rights Theory, 1: What Are 'Human Rights'? Against the 'Orthodox' View (April 22, 2015). Emory Legal Studies Research Paper No. 15-349, Available at SSRN: or

Michael John Perry (Contact Author)

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