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

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • General Overviews
  • Encyclopedias
  • Data Sources
  • History
  • Moral and Legal Human Rights

Philosophy Human Rights
John-Stewart Gordon
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 September 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0239


There is an enormous range of contemporary and rapidly expanding literature on human rights that pervades almost every area of human life. This entry cannot do justice to all of these areas and would inevitably fail to cover all aspects of the philosophy of human rights. Here, the goal is more modest: offering a primary overview of the thorny literature and many vital human rights issues that can become increasingly complex and muddled. The concept of human rights, however, came to particular prominence in the twentieth century after World War II, due to the atrocities (e.g., genocide against the Jews) committed by the Nazis. Since then, the idea of human rights has become profoundly influential in many different fields such as ethics, applied ethics, political philosophy, political sciences, law, international law, medicine, and public health. This has led to the formation of a new area in philosophy called “the philosophy of human rights.” The very idea of human rights, however, is older and can be traced back to early religious ideas and the notion of natural rights in Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Generally speaking, human rights are primarily universal moral norms that bind all people in all places at all times independently of any legal recognition. Whether there is a widespread agreement that all human beings have human rights simply because they are human beings is a matter of debate. However, there is currently no common ground with regard to the moral and legal justification or the ontological and epistemological status of human rights. Human rights are primarily universal moral rights and, secondly, international legal rights observed and enforced by nation-states. Despite major caveats concerning the theoretical foundations of human rights, most scholars nonetheless hold the view that there is a vital consensus on the practical importance of human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) (cited under Modern Documents), is the most important human rights document and contains at least seven groups of basic rights: security rights, due process rights, liberty rights, political rights, equality rights, social welfare rights, and group rights.

Introductory Works

According to Orend 2002, human rights have a high priority and secure minimal levels of decent and respectful treatment so that human beings can live a minimally good life. Most people argue that human rights are first and foremost universal moral rights irrespective of whether they are enforced by local law or not; others claim that they are first and foremost (international) legal rights. A third view is that they are both, because universal moral rights must be integrated into international and local law in order to be most effective for human beings (e.g., the American Bill of Rights [1789], the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen [1789] [both cited under Classic Documents], the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [1948], the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [1966], and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights [1966] [all cited under Modern Documents]). In practice, national governments and international institutions—for example, the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Court of Justice, and nongovernmental organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch—secure human rights because they are most capable of performing this task effectively. The introductions Nickel 2007 and Orend 2002 are well-balanced and critical contributions on human rights that belong to the best (introductory) works. Nickel’s book also contains the core documents on human rights, that is, the Universal Declaration and both International Covenants, while Orend not only provides (besides the Universal Declaration) important regional documents such as the American Bill of Rights, the French Declaration, and the Canadian Charter, but also offers a brief but good overview on the history of human rights. The two encyclopedia entries Fagan 2005 and Nickel 2019 both provide an excellent general overview on human rights; in addition, Nickel offers a lengthy section on international human rights law and organizations. In this respect, they can be used as complementary works.

  • Fagan, Andrew. “Human Rights.” In Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by James Fieser and Bradley Dowden. Martin: University of Tennessee at Martin, 2005.

    Provides the reader with a general overview of human rights. A good place to start for undergraduate and graduate students as well as laypeople.

  • Nickel, James. Making Sense of Human Rights. 2d ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 2007.

    This impressive book offers a good overview on many issues concerning human rights, for example, the conception and justification of human rights and the problem of cultural relativism. It is concise and clearly written and can be used as an introduction to the subject. The author defends the current list of human rights by appealing to a pluralistic approach. The book contains some important human rights documents and a good bibliography.

  • Nickel, James. “Human Rights.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2019.

    This long and comprehensive entry gives a detailed overview of many key issues in the philosophy of human rights; it contains a lengthy section on international human rights law and organizations that provides an up-to-date survey.

  • Orend, Brian. Human Rights: Concept and Context. Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 2002.

    A concise introduction that offers a very good overview of the concept of human rights concerning the core features, different approaches of justifications, and the objects and subjects of human rights as well as the main objections to human rights. Also contains a brief but good overview on the history of human rights from Antiquity to contemporary history and some basic human rights documents.

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