New York University Public Law and Legal Theory Working Papers

Document Type



This paper examines and criticizes the suggestion that we should interpret the “human” in “human rights” as (i) referring to the appropriate sort of action when certain rights are violated rather than (ii) the (human) universality of certain rights. It considers first a crude version of (i) — the view that human rights are rights in response to whose violation we are prepared to countenance humanitarian intervention; then it considers more cautious and sophisticated versions of (i). It is argued that all versions of (i) distract us with side issues in our thinking about human rights, and sell short both the individualism of rights and the continuity that there is supposed to be between human rights and rights in national law. The paper does not deny that there are difficulties with views of type (ii). But it denies that the positing of views of type (i) gives us reason to abandon the enterprise of trying to sort these difficulties out.

Date of Authorship for this Version



Charles Beitz, John Rawls, Joseph Raz, human rights, humanitarian intervention, rights, sovereignty, universalism