Political and naturalistic conceptions of human rights: A false polemic?

S. Matthew Liao, Adam Etinson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


What are human rights? According to one longstanding account, the Naturalistic Conception of human rights, human rights are those that we have simply in virtue of being human. In recent years, however, a new and purportedly alternative conception of human rights has become increasingly popular. This is the so-called Political Conception of human rights, the proponents of which include John Rawls, Charles Beitz, and Joseph Raz. In this paper we argue for three claims. First, we demonstrate that Naturalistic Conceptions of human rights can accommodate two of the most salient concerns that proponents of the Political Conception have raised about them. Second, we argue that the theoretical distance between Naturalistic and Political Conceptions is not as great as it has been made out to be. Finally, we argue that a Political Conception of human rights, on its own, lacks the resources necessary to determine the substantive content of human rights. If we are right, not only should the Naturalistic Conception not be rejected, the Political Conception is in fact incomplete without the theoretical resources that a Naturalistic Conception characteristically provides. These three claims, in tandem, provide a fresh and largely conciliatory perspective on the ongoing debate between proponents of Political and Naturalistic Conceptions of human rights.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)327-352
Number of pages26
JournalJournal of Moral Philosophy
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2012


  • Charles Beitz
  • Human rights
  • James Griffin
  • John Rawls
  • John Tasioulas
  • Joseph Raz
  • naturalistic conception
  • orthodox conception
  • philosophical foundation
  • political conception
  • practical conception

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Philosophy


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