Many people have lamented the proliferation of human rights claims. The cure for this problem, it may be thought, would be to develop a theory that can distinguish 'real' from 'supposed' human rights. I argue, however, that the proliferation of human rights mirrors a deep problem in human rights theory itself. Contemporary theories of natural rights to welfare are historical descendants from a theory of rights to subsistence which was developed in twelfth-century Europe. According to this theory, each human being has a special role to fulfil in God's plan and therefore has inalienable rights to subsist. Later theories have secularized this idea by claiming that human beings are purposive agents. Secularization, however, comes at a price. In the case of these theories, the price is a failure to provide satisfactory answers to the most basic questions we would expect of a theory of natural rights to answer. They have failed to provide a basis for ascribing these rights to all and only to human beings. They have not been able to generate a clear and viable criterion for ascribing duties correlative to these rights. And they cannot limit rights-claims in a non-arbitrary way. Hence we should abandon these theories.
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