Ethical Theory Spring 2022

Gewirth’s Ethical Rationalism


We did not cover this material; it will not be on the exam.

Gewirth’s argument is that everyone is committed to believing in and respecting human rights. This is so because that is the logical consequence of thoughts that everyone has when they act.

Gewirth’s argument

Gewirth characterizes his argument as a “dialectical” one rather than as one that is “assertoric” (Gewirth 1984, 20–22). What he means is that he’s trying to show that the belief in human rights is something that we’re committed to whenever we act. So the argument has a big “if” in it: if you act, then you’re committed to believing in human rights. By contrast, when I assert there is a table in the room, I’m not saying anything about you, what you’re doing, or what you believe.

The argument has fourteen points that fall into two parts. These are laid out in a separate handout. In one part, Gewirth seeks to show that everyone is committed to believing in what he calls “prudential rights.” In the other part, he tries to show that the belief in prudential rights leads to a belief in moral rights.

One question you might have about his argument is: what is a prudential right? It’s a term unique to Gewirth, so he really owed us a definition. A prudential right is a statement of what a person needs others to do if that person is to accomplish his or her aims. So, Gewirth claims, you are committed to thinking that you need others not to interfere with your attempts to achieve your aims. That’s what it means to think that you have a prudential right.

A prudential right lacks an important feature of a moral right. Moral rights impose moral duties and prudential rights do not. Moral duties are categorical, meaning they apply to you regardless of what you want, and they are concerned with the interests of other people (Gewirth 1984, 17). That’s why Gewirth needs the second part of his argument to show that he can move from prudential rights to moral rights.

If he succeeds, he will have shown that everyone who acts is logically committed to believing that others have human rights. That would be pretty amazing.

We are not going to have a lot of time to discuss this. I imagine there will be some questions about how the parts are supposed to fit together. I want to add one about rationalistic ethics in general. For my contributions, think about two things.

  1. Suppose I need a heart transplant to live. Am I logically committed to thinking that I have a right to a heart transplant or that others ought not to interfere with my getting one?

  2. What if Gewirth’s argument were a success. He would prove that someone who does something morally wrong is also inconsistent or rationally wrong. I don’t think that gets at what being morally wrong is and realizing that deepened my understanding of what I believe about ethics. I want to explain why.

Key Points

These are the points you should know or have an opinion about from today’s class.

  1. What prudential rights are.

  2. Why Gewirth thinks that agents are committed to believing in prudential rights.

  3. How Gewirth gets from prudential rights to moral rights.

  4. What you want an argument to show about morality. Is it “why you have to be moral”? Or is it something less, like “what consistency among your ethical beliefs would involve”?


Gewirth, Alan. 1984. “The Epistemology of Human Rights.” Social Philosophy and Policy 1 (2): 1–24. doi:10.1017/S0265052500003836.


There was a handout for this class: 17.Gewirth.handout.pdf