International Theories of Civil Liberties

THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES, Routledge Reference, Taylor & Francis Group, Forthcoming

11 Pages Posted: 20 Sep 2005

See all articles by David E. Guinn

David E. Guinn

State University of New York (SUNY) - Center for International Development


Comparing American perspectives on civil liberties with their international counterparts presents numerous problems. First, most American commentators understand civil liberties in terms of civil rights as identified in the American Bill of Rights. The relatively recent shift towards defining these issues as civil liberties itself reflects the influence of critiques of rights, many of which originate or are strongly grounded in international politics and law. Second, the very idea of organizing a polity around a limited set of political or social liberties is largely an American construct. Internationally, civil liberties exist within the larger framework of international human rights, a conceptual system that powerfully shapes and informs the content of those liberties. Moreover, international human rights has largely absorbed a variety of theories about rights useful in understanding civil liberties. While these theories developed over the course of history, each contributing something to our understanding of civil liberties, they no longer stand as independent bases for political thought or action. Thus, in describing international theories on civil liberties, we are in some sense parsing the historic development of human rights of which American civil liberties are a significant part.

In identifying historically grounded theories of civil liberties, one might proceed through a careful study of the emergence of specific civil liberties. That would, however, limit the discussion of theoretical perspectives to those that already inhere within a specific set of identified civil liberties. This would also miss efforts to expand our definition of civil liberties to include liberties and rights recognized internationally. A better approach attempts to identify theories based upon a broader understanding that civil liberties reflect particular understandings of the relationship between the citizen(s) and the state. Here we can very briefly identify five significant approaches, each impacting civil liberties in particular ways, starting with an Aristotelian understanding of the human as a political animal, then successively moving through a Lockean libertarianism, Montesquian fraternite, Marxist materialism, international interests, and ending with the rights of peoples.

Keywords: civil liberties, international human rights

JEL Classification: K19, K30, K33, K40

Suggested Citation

Guinn, David E., International Theories of Civil Liberties. THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES, Routledge Reference, Taylor & Francis Group, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN:

David E. Guinn (Contact Author)

State University of New York (SUNY) - Center for International Development ( email )

State University Plaza
Albany, NY 12246
United States


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