Assigning functions to human rights: Methodological issues in human rights theory

James Nickel

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Theorists who assign functions to human rights often simply announce them as if they were obvious. Assigning a defining or typical function to a concept, artefact, or practice is not a straightforward empirical matter. It requires observation of uses and products, but also requires judgements of centrality and importance and uses selection criteria that can conflict. The first section of this chapter analyses the assignment of functions to artefacts, concepts, and practices and identifies some key methodological issues. The two following sections explore those methodological issues in the works of three philosophers who assign functions to human rights-James Griffin, John Rawls, and Charles Beitz. The conclusion suggests some ways in which the debate between proponents of "orthodox" and "political" conceptions of human rights can be improved.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationHuman Rights
Subtitle of host publicationMoral or Political?
PublisherOxford University Press
Number of pages15
ISBN (Print)9780198713258
StatePublished - Apr 19 2018


  • Functional analysis of concepts
  • Human rights
  • Human rights practice
  • Philosophical methodology
  • Political theories of human rights

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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