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Human Rights Philosophy


Admission requirements

Bachelor in Philosophy, Bachelor in Law, or equivalent degree.


Human rights are a prominent part of the current legal landscape. We appeal to human rights to critique and defend policies. Despite its growing prominence within debates on international law the concept of human rights remains controversial and problematic in many respects. One problem concerns their justification. Where do these supposed rights come from? What is their source? A second major controversy about human rights concerns their universality. Are human rights a culturally relative phenomenon or a universal concept that transcends particular cultures? A third problem concerns the scope of human rights. What things do we have a human right to? Civil and political rights, e.g. the right not to be detained unjustly, are fairly uncontroversial. But is there a human right to health, education or employment? Do we have a human right to a clean environment? Are human rights individual rights, or do they also include group rights? Throughout the semester, we will tackle these and other philosophical issues that arise in connection with human rights. We will also look at how these philosophical issues relate to pressing practical problems, focusing in particular on how an understanding of human rights philosophy helps us to address the issue of terrorism.

We will begin by briefly examining the development of post-Holocaust human rights law. We will subsequently turn our attention to the philosophical underpinnings of human rights, and take a close look at classical, modern and contemporary perspectives. We shall then turn our focus to a critique of universalism from the cultural relativist perspective. Next, we will consider which rights are human rights. Subtopics will include: civil and political rights, social rights, environmental rights, and minority and group rights. Upon concluding the course, we will look at how human rights relate to pressing practical problems facing the world today. Special attention will be paid to the treatment of terrorist suspects.

Course objectives

Course objectives will be posted on Blackboard by the start of the course.


See Collegeroosters Wijsbegeerte 2012-2013, MA Philosophy.
See Timetables Philosophy 2012-2013, MA Philosophy.

Mode of instruction


Assessment method

  • Active participation

  • Presentation

  • Take-home exam

  • Paper



Reading list

  • Patrick Hayden, The Philosophy of Human Rights: Readings in Context, Paragon Issues in Philosophy, 2001.

  • All other reading materials (journal articles, book chapters) will be made available online or in photocopy form.


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Contact information

H.A. Noorda, LL.M., MA