, Volume 35, Issue 1, pp 313–325 | Cite as

Do Rights Exist by Convention or by Nature?

  • Katharina NieswandtEmail author


I argue that all rights exist by convention. According to my definition, a right exists by convention just in case its justification appeals to the rules of a socially shared pattern of acting. I show that (i) our usual justifications for rights are circular, that (ii) a right fulfills my criterion if all possible justifications for it are circular, and that (iii) all existing philosophical justifications for rights are circular or fail. We find three non-circular alternatives in the literature, viz. justifications of rights by consequences, by autonomy or by divine commands. I show that all three alternatives fail, and I conclude that all rights exist by convention. This ontological result has a surprising and beneficial consequence. A common argument against conventionalism is that it implies cultural relativism. I finish by showing that the suggested conventionalism is incompatible with cultural relativism.


Natural rights Convention Practice Hume’s Circle GEM Anscombe WN Hohfeld 



I am particularly grateful to Ulf Hlobil, as well as to Michael Thompson, Ori Beck and Japa Pallikkathayil, for reading multiple drafts of this paper. Further helpful suggestions came from Jonathan Buttaci, Natalja Deng, Michael Goodhart, Christian Kietzmann, Lok-Chun Kelson Law, Anselm Müller, Cynthia Swinehart, Charlotte Witt and two anonymous reviewers. I thank the Charlotte W. Newcombe Foundation for funding my research during this time.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of PittsburghPittsburghUSA

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