Res Publica

, Volume 19, Issue 3, pp 275–283 | Cite as

Beyond Sectarianism? On David Miller’s Theory of Human Rights

  • Kieran ObermanEmail author


In his most recent book, National Responsibility and Global Justice, David Miller presents an account of human rights grounded on the idea of basic human needs. Miller argues that his account can overcome what he regards as a central problem for human rights theory: the need to provide a ‘non-sectarian’ justification for human rights, one that does not rely on reasons that people from non-liberal societies should find objectionable. The list of human rights that Miller’s account generates is, however, minimal when compared to those found in human rights documents, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights. This article argues that contrary to what Miller claims, his account is ‘sectarian’, since it relies on reasons that some non-liberals should find objectionable given their divergent values. It goes on to question whether ‘sectarianism’, as Miller defines it, is, in any case, a problem for human rights theory. The article concludes that Miller provides us with no reason to abandon commitment to a more extensive list of human rights.


David Miller Human rights Sectarianism Liberalism 



I owe thanks to G. A. Cohen who helped me develop my response to Miller’s theory of human rights when I was working on my doctoral thesis. I also owe thanks to my former colleagues at the Center for Ethics in Society at Stanford to whom I presented an early draft in 2010. Perceptive comments from the Editor of Res Publica and an anonymous reviewer inspired significant improvements. Finally, I would like to thank David Miller himself for his generous support and encouragement of my work and his ever willingness to engage in debate regarding human rights and other topics of mutual interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.UCD School of Politics and International RelationsUniversity College DublinDublin 4Ireland

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