Human Rights

Human Rights

Old Problems, New Possibilities

Edited by David Kinley, Wojciech Sadurski and Kevin Walton

Reflecting on the various dichotomies through which human rights have traditionally been understood, this book takes account of recent developments in both theories of rights and in international human rights law to present new ways of thinking about some long-standing problems.

Chapter 2: Human rights as moral rights

Kevin Walton

Subjects: law - academic, human rights, law and society, politics and public policy, human rights


For declarations of natural rights, Jeremy Bentham had nothing but disdain. He denounced them as gibberish. He decried their likely impact on government, too. Assertions of legal rights made intellectual and political sense to him, since they could be traced to the specific commands of particular sovereigns. But all other statements of rights, which seemed to invoke elusive laws of nature, he found both absurd and politically troubling. Although he was willing to construe them as bungling attempts to indicate rights that ought to exist, he insisted that they neither could nor should be understood as claims about actual rights. He was adamant: That there are no such things as natural rights – no such things as rights anterior to the establishment of government – no such things as natural rights opposed to, in contradistinction to, legal: that the expression is merely figurative; that when used in the moment you attempt to give it a literal meaning it leads to error, and to that sort of error that leads to mischief – to the extremity of mischief. Despite Bentham’s forceful attack on non-legal rights, I argue briefly here that human rights can be moral rights. My argument focuses on Tom Campbell’s reiteration, in his contribution to this volume and elsewhere, of Bentham’s critique. I start by comparing the conception of rights, including human rights, that Campbell favours with two others that are prominent in the contemporary literature.

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