Practical Philosophy Seminar: Jesse Tomalty (University of Bergen)

The Scope Problem for Human Rights

The idea of universal human rights faces a problem of scope. This becomes apparent in trying to answer the seemingly simple question of who bears these rights. The seemingly obvious answer is: all and only humans. This answer implies that all and only humans share certain rights-grounding features. The trouble is that there aren’t any such features. Any rights-grounding features possessed only by humans are not shared by all humans; and any rights-grounding features shared by all humans are also possessed by members of other species. The lack of rights-grounding features shared by all and only humans entails a lack of justification for extending human rights to all humans while at once limiting their scope to only humans.

There are two ways in which the scope problem might be solved. The first is to give up on the universality of human rights, and accept that they are only held by a subset of the species. I call this the restricted scope solution. The second is to extend the scope of human rights beyond our species. I call this the expanded scope solution. Both of these solutions encounter further problems, but I argue that the expanded scope solution is preferable. I conclude with some reflections on what this solution implies for current human rights discourse and practice.



Jesse Tomalty is Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Bergen. Her PhD is from the University of St Andrews, and she has held positions at the University of Frankfurt, the University of Oxford, and the University of Stirling. Her main research interests are in contemporary ethics and political philosophy. Jesse has published papers on a variety of interrelated topics including the human right to subsistence, the nature of duties of assistance towards the global poor, and the relationship between moral and legal human rights. She is currently working on papers on social rights, the right to work, and the scope of human rights.

Published Feb. 1, 2019 2:32 PM - Last modified July 19, 2019 4:00 PM