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


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.

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  1. 1.

    This and all subsequent references to Miller are to National Responsibility and Global Justice (Miller 2007). For the kind of liberal account that Miller opposes see (Griffin 2008).

  2. 2.

    For a justification of human rights based on actual political agreements see (Beitz 2006). For accounts which claim to find an overlapping consensus amongst various ethical traditions see (Taylor 1999; Walzer 1994). Ironically, Miller rejects these alternative accounts for either being implicitly ‘sectarian’ or for failing to support important human rights (pp. 168–178): two charges I shall make against Miller’s own account.


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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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Correspondence to Kieran Oberman.

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Oberman, K. Beyond Sectarianism? On David Miller’s Theory of Human Rights. Res Publica 19, 275–283 (2013).

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  • David Miller
  • Human rights
  • Sectarianism
  • Liberalism