Events Calendar
Mar 21
15:00 - 17:00
Rethinking Rights and their Philosophical Justification
Philosophy Work in Progress
Dr Eleanor Curran (Kent Law School)

Abstract: The idea that individuals have rights is universally accepted in political discourse and in international and domestic law but our understanding of what a right is and why rights deserve our respect or protection is a far more contested matter. The philosophical justification of individual rights has never fully recovered from the discrediting of natural rights theory in the eighteenth century (Hume, Bentham). The notion of 'natural rights' was re-configured in the twentieth and twenty first centuries as the idea of 'human rights' but without the philosophical underpinning of natural law theory.

In the early twentieth century there was a turn to jurisprudence for an explanation and understanding of rights in the context of law. Most famously this gave rise  to the analysis of Wesley Hohfeld and the notion of rights as 'claims' (Hohfeld, 1919) and later to the ideas of rights as representing interests to be protected (MacCormick,1982)  or choices to be made.  (Hart, 1973).

I argue that the widespread adoption of Hohfeld's definition of a right by political philosophers has resulted in an impoverished understanding of a right as no more than a claim or entitlement held against someone or some state. This is a right emptied of all political or moral value.

I argue for a return to the core category of political rights and a rethinking of the notion of liberty as the defining concept of political rights. The notion of liberty itself has been much contested, particularly in recent years, by those arguing for 'republican liberty', that is, liberty understood as 'freedom from domination', (Skinner, 1998, Pettit, 1997) against the modern 'liberal' tradition of 'negative liberty', that is, 'freedom from interference', (Berlin, 1969). I propose a reconfiguring of the notion of liberty to include the crucial element of 'freedom from domination' that helps to rescue the concept from the doldrums of laissez faire liberalism and its critics.


Seminar Room 13,
Keynes College,
University of Kent,
United Kingdom


Open to all,

Contact: Dr Alexandra Couto


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