In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Rights

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • The History of Rights Theory
  • Critics of Rights

Philosophy Rights
Rowan Cruft
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 June 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0105


The concept of a right is central to contemporary moral, political, and legal debates. It is therefore perhaps surprising that there is no consensus either on what rights are or on whether, and if so, how, their existence is morally justified. Recent work encompasses a wide range of positions on the nature of rights (e.g., as essentially protectors of people’s interests, as essentially protectors of people’s choices, or as fulfilling more complex functions), on their moral justification (e.g., as instrumentally or noninstrumentally grounded), and on the relationship between their nature and their justification. Much good work on particular types of rights—such as human rights, property rights, animal rights—bypasses these general issues, assuming a particular conception of rights without arguing for it. The initial sections of this bibliography focus on rights in general; specific forms of rights are examined under Notable Classes of Rights in this bibliography.

General Overviews

For an excellent up-to-date, comprehensive account of the debates over the nature and justification of rights, Wenar 2010 cannot be bettered. A briefer but still highly effective overview is provided by Martin 1998. Waldron 1984 also offers a selective but very lively and well-argued overview.

  • Martin, Rex. “Rights.” In Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Vol. 8. Edited by Edward Craig, 325–331. London: Routledge, 1998.

    A short introduction that discusses many of the key philosophical debates (such as the question of whether rights require social recognition in order to exist).

  • Waldron, Jeremy. “Introduction.” In Theories of Rights. Edited by Jeremy Waldron. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.

    Even though it is comparatively old, this short introduction neatly and engagingly outlines several of the key contemporary areas for debate (e.g., Hohfeld’s analysis; the Interest/Will Theory debate; the special form of constraint that rights constitute) and situates them within the history of rights discussions.

  • Wenar, Leif. “Rights.” In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2010.

    Despite its brevity, this superb introduction manages to cover all the key philosophical issues and more, in greater depth than many of the book-length introductions listed in Textbooks.

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