Theorizing Natural Human Rights

Written by: Michael Boylan


A Philosopher's Response

On November 27, Michael Boylan gave a lecture about his new book, Natural Human Rights: A Theory, at Oxford University (if you missed it, you can listen here). Graduate student Joseph Bowen blogged about the talk, raising a few questions and criticisms about Boylan's theory. Check out Boylan's response to Bowen's criticisms below.


The blog summarized several points from my book: Natural Human Rights: A Theory (Cambridge University Press, 2014).  It also brought up two point of criticism: (a) that there are too many rights listed, and (b) that the link to “natural” in my account becomes blurred in secondary goods (within my Table of Embeddedness).

Here are two brief replies.  To (a) I reply that it is a common complaint that is made to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights that it lists too many rights and that the rights listed are of a different character.  This is an apt complaint against the U.N. document, but not against my theory.  This is because the Table of Embeddedness must be seen in the context of my argument for The Moral Status of Basic Goods (which Bowen also cites).  The only absolute duties incurred are level-one basic goods to food, water, sanitation, shelter, and protection from unwarranted bodily harm (including basic healthcare).  These are so proximate to the grounds necessary for action that it would be biologically impossible to act without these in a minimum amount.  All other goods on the Table of Embeddedness are less “embedded” (meaning proximate to the very possibility of exercising human action).  The necessity of enforcing the various levels of the Table are proportionally less as one moves farther down the Table.  Thus it does not matter that there are many rights to goods listed because the strength of the right claim (and its correlative duty) is proportionally less.  This is even more pronounced as one encounters level-two and level-three secondary goods.  It is essential that this be broad for public policy sake so that all adjudication of claims to goods can be seen within the context of the Table in order to ascertain which is to trump which.  Thus, if a one percenter were to talk about his right to a yacht it is a proper locution, but since this is so far from the essential conditions of human action, that it would surely be trumped by someone else in the society or around the world who is lacking food (for example).  It is not that the rich person has no right to the yacht, it is just that until all the other categories above this claim have been fulfilled, his claim will always be trumped by another.

Respecting (b) any claim to a good on the Table of Embeddedness is natural in virtue to the externalist claim that it possesses a relative embeddedness to the possibility of committing purposive action.  That embeddedness draws back to “The Moral Status of Basic Goods” argument.  Since the externalist claims about the relative nature of any good’s proximity to human action is scientifically determinable, it is “natural” (all externalist scientific truths are natural).  Thus, the second objection is met as well.

I certainly enjoyed the audience at the talk and appreciated their questions (which you can hear if you listen to the podcast).  See also: michaelboylan.net and @michaelboylan60.

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About the Author: Michael Boylan

Michael Boylan is the author of Natural Human Rights: A Theory....

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