Ethical Theory Spring 2021

Gewirth’s Ethical Rationalism


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 is spelled out in the third part of his article. My plan is to spend today’s class laying the argument out. Next time, we will return to it with a more critical eye.

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.

Now, 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.

Next time, we will talk about whether he succeeds. Specifically, I want to raise two kinds of question. One kind will concern the inner workings of the argument: do the parts really fit together the way he says they do? The other kind of question I want to talk about concerns the nature of the argument. Suppose he were right and that doing something morally wrong is a way of doing something logically wrong. I would find that odd. I think you should feel guilty if you do something morally wrong and that you should not feel guilty for making logical mistakes. I want to see if you have a similar reaction and, if you do, what you think this means about morality.

Key Points

You should study the handout and have a good sense of how the argument moves from one step to the other.


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: 14.Gewirth.handout.pdf