From beginner-friendly introductions to classic books on human rights, this page features books to suit any learning style. It’s worth noting that there is no single best philosophy book on human rights. The best book for you will depend heavily on your preferred learning style and the amount of time/energy you’re willing to spend reading.
It’s also worth noting that it is not a list of personal recommendations. Personal book recommendations tend to be highly subjective, idiosyncratic, and unreliable. This list is part of a collection of over 100 philosophy reading lists which aim to provide a central resource for philosophy book recommendations. These lists were created by searching through hundreds of university course syllabi, internet encyclopedia bibliographies, and community recommendations. Links to the syllabi and other sources used to create this list are at the end of the post. Following these links will help you quickly find a broader range of options if the listed books do not fit what you are looking for.
Here are the best philosophy books on human rights in no particular order.
Human Rights: A Very Short Introduction – Andrew Clapham
Category: Short Introduction | Length: 216 pages | Published: 2016 (2e)
Publisher description: Today it is usually not long before a problem gets expressed as a human rights issue. Indeed, human rights law continues to gain increasing attention internationally, and must move quickly in order to keep up with a social world that changes so rapidly.
This Very Short Introduction, in its second edition, brings the issue of human rights up to date, considering the current controversies surrounding the movement. Discussing torture and arbitrary detention in the context of counter terrorism, Andrew Clapham also considers new challenges to human rights in the context of privacy, equality and the right to health. Looking at the philosophical justification for rights, the historical origins of human rights and how they are formed in law, Clapham explains what our human rights actually are, what they might be, and where the human rights movement is heading.
The Evolution of International Human Rights – Paul Gordon Lauren
Category: Comprehensive Introduction | Length: 432 pages | Published: 2011 (3e)
Publisher description: This widely acclaimed and highly regarded book, used extensively by students, scholars, policymakers, and activists, now appears in a new third edition. Focusing on the theme of visions seen by those who dreamed of what might be, Lauren explores the dramatic transformation of a world patterned by centuries of human rights abuses into a global community that now boldly proclaims that the way governments treat their own people is a matter of international concern—and sets the goal of human rights “for all peoples and all nations.” He reveals the truly universal nature of this movement, places contemporary events within their broader historical contexts, and explains the relationship between individual cases and larger issues of human rights with insight.
This new edition incorporates material from recently declassified documents and the most recent scholarship relating to the creation of the new Human Rights Council and its Universal Periodic Review, the International Criminal Court, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), terrorism and torture, the impact of globalization and modern technology, and activists in NGOs devoted to human rights. It provides perceptive assessments of the process of change, the power of visions and visionaries, politics and political will, and the evolving meanings of sovereignty, security, and human rights themselves.
Human Rights: An Introduction – Darren J. O’Byrne
Category: Comprehensive Introduction | Length: 460 pages | Published: 2002
Publisher description: Human Rights: An Introduction is an important text that provides a comprehensive overview of human rights and related issues from a social science perspective.
First, this book does more than discuss theory, it uses case studies and personal testimonies in the debate. Human rights as an area of academic interest cannot be easily divorced from human rights struggles and the reality of contemporary conditions.
Second, the book is aimed at what is an emerging and growing cross-disciplinary field of study. Human rights issues are increasingly coming to the fore in a number of academic debates. Whereas the study of human rights has traditionally been included in departments of law, international relations and philosophy, a number of courses are now being set up in departments of sociology and anthropology. Consequently, there is an increasing need to bring these disparate approaches together.
Philosophical Foundations of Human Rights – Cruft, Liao, & Renzo
Category: Comprehensive Overview | Length: 720 pages | Published: 2015
Publisher description: What makes something a human right? What is the relationship between the moral foundations of human rights and human rights law? What are the difficulties of appealing to human rights?
This book offers the first comprehensive survey of current thinking on the philosophical foundations of human rights. Divided into four parts, this book focusses firstly on the moral grounds of human rights, for example in our dignity, agency, interests or needs. Secondly, it looks at the implications that different moral perspectives on human rights bear for human rights law and politics. Thirdly, it discusses specific and topical human rights including freedom of expression and religion, security, health and more controversial rights such as a human right to subsistence. The final part discusses nuanced critical and reformative views on human rights from feminist, Kantian and relativist perspectives among others. …
World Poverty and Human Rights – Thomas Pogge
Category: Contemporary | Length: 304 pages | Published: 2008 (2e)
Publisher description: Some 2.5 billion human beings live in severe poverty, deprived of such essentials as adequate nutrition, safe drinking water, basic sanitation, adequate shelter, literacy, and basic health care. One third of all human deaths are from poverty-related causes: 18 million annually, including over 10 million children under five.
However huge in human terms, the world poverty problem is tiny economically. Just 1 percent of the national incomes of the high-income countries would suffice to end severe poverty worldwide. Yet, these countries, unwilling to bear an opportunity cost of this magnitude, continue to impose a grievously unjust global institutional order that foreseeably and avoidably perpetuates the catastrophe. Most citizens of affluent countries believe that we are doing nothing wrong.
Thomas Pogge seeks to explain how this belief is sustained. He analyses how our moral and economic theorizing and our global economic order have adapted to make us appear disconnected from massive poverty abroad. Dispelling the illusion, he also offers a modest, widely sharable standard of global economic justice and makes detailed, realistic proposals toward fulfilling it. …
The Idea of Human Rights – Charles R. Beitz
Category: Contemporary | Length: 256 pages | Published: 2011
Publisher description: The international doctrine of human rights is one of the most ambitious parts of the settlement of World War II. Since then, the language of human rights has become the common language of social criticism in global political life. This book is a theoretical examination of the central idea of that language, the idea of a human right. In contrast to more conventional philosophical studies, Charles Beitz takes a practical approach, looking at the history and political practice of human rights for guidance in understanding the central idea. Betiz presents a model of human rights as matters of international concern whose violation by governments can justify international protective and restorative action ranging from intervention to assistance. He proposes a schema for justifying human rights and applies it to several controversial cases–rights against poverty, rights to democracy, and the human rights of women.
On Human Rights – James Griffin
Category: Contemporary | Length: 339 pages | Published: 2009
Publisher description: What is a human right? How can we tell whether a proposed human right really is one? How do we establish the content of particular human rights, and how do we resolve conflicts between them? These are pressing questions for philosophers, political theorists, jurisprudents, international lawyers, and activists. James Griffin offers answers in his compelling new investigation of the foundations of human rights.
The Heart of Human Rights – Allen Buchanan
Category: Contemporary | Length: 332 pages | Published: 2017
Publisher description: This is the first attempt to provide an in-depth moral assessment of the heart of the modern human rights enterprise: the system of international legal human rights. It is international human rights law–not any philosophical theory of moral human rights or any “folk” conception of moral human rights–that serves as the lingua franca of modern human rights practice. Yet contemporary philosophers have had little to say about international legal human rights. They have tended to assume, rather than to argue, that international legal human rights, if morally justified, must mirror or at least help realize moral human rights. But this assumption is mistaken. International legal human rights, like many other legal rights, can be justified by several different types of moral considerations, of which the need to realize a corresponding moral right is only one. …
The following sources were used to build this list:
University Course Syllabi:
- Philosophical Foundations of Human Rights – University of Chicago
- Human Rights – Columbia University
- Philosophy of Human Rights – Concordia University
- Philosophy of Human Rights – Binghamton University
- Human Rights: Philosophical Issues – Dalhousie University
- Bibliography for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Human Rights
- Bibliography for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Human Rights
You might also be interested in the following reading lists:
- The Best Introductory Philosophy Books
- The Best Books on Political Philosophy
- The Best Philosophy Books on Liberalism
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A History of Western Philosophy in 500 Essential Quotations – Lennox Johnson
Category: Reference | Length: 145 pages | Published: 2019
Publisher’s Description: A History of Western Philosophy in 500 Essential Quotations is a collection of the greatest thoughts from history’s greatest thinkers. Featuring classic quotations by Aristotle, Epicurus, David Hume, Friedrich Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, Michel Foucault, and many more, A History of Western Philosophy in 500 Essential Quotations is ideal for anyone looking to quickly understand the fundamental ideas that have shaped the modern world.