HUMR5150 – The Philosophy of Human Rights

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Course content

While the concept of human rights today plays an important role both in law and in politics (domestic and international), it is also a concept which is firmly grounded in philosophical discussions of rights, in at least two ways. On the one hand, there is a long philosophical tradition discussing rights in general, and natural rights in particular, and which is arguably a precursor of the contemporary concept of human rights. On the other hand, the philosophy of human rights has in the last decade seen a turn away from the natural rights tradition and towards examining and providing a philosophical justification for the contemporary practice of human rights, in particular as this practice takes place in international law and politics. 

Indeed, one of the main topics of discussion within the contemporary philosophy of human rights is whether human rights are best understood according to the so-called “orthodox” or “naturalistic” approach, where human rights are seen as belonging inherently to the natural rights tradition in philosophy, or according to the so-called “political” or “practical approach”, according to which the philosophy of human rights must take as its point of departure the role human rights actually play in contemporary politics, with the result that human rights might turn out to be quite different from natural rights. The course will cover both approaches to human rights, examining the merits of each approach, and discussing what is at stake in the debate between orthodox and political approaches to the philosophy of human rights. 

In addition to discussing the question of how the concept of human rights should be understood, the course will also discuss other core questions in the philosophy of human rights, such as how human rights claims can be justified, the role human rights play in normative theory, how to deal with conflicts of rights, the relationship between moral human rights and legal human rights, and the relation between human rights and relativism. The course will also examine how the debate over different concepts of human rights is relevant for the discussion of these further questions. Finally, the course will address the legitimacy of the international human rights system and consider moral criticisms of this system. 

Learning outcome

The course will provide the students with an understanding of some of the main philosophical debates about human rights, concerning how the concept of human rights should be understood, how human rights can be justified and the moral relevance of human rights. After having taken the course the student will be able to critically participate in these debates and will have the foundation for understanding new questions arising within the philosophy of human rights.


Students who are admitted to study programmes at UiO must each semester register which courses and exams they wish to sign up for in Studentweb.

If you are not already enrolled as a student at UiO, please see our information about admission requirements and procedures.

You may register for this course if you have admission to a Master's programme at UiO. All applicants must fill the formal prerequisites.
Priority is given to students on the programme Theory and Practice of Human Rights (master's two years).

External students may apply for guest student status.


Recommended previous knowledge

Students with no background in human rights studies are strongly advised to read the introductory readings.     



Access to teaching

A student who has completed compulsory instruction and coursework and has had these approved, is not entitled to repeat that instruction and coursework. A student who has been admitted to a course, but who has not completed compulsory instruction and coursework or had these approved, is entitled to repeat that instruction and coursework, depending on available capacity.


The examination consists of a written assignment, consisting of an essay of maximum 5000 words, assignments with text exceeding the word limit will not be sent to grading.

The assignment will be assessed in two steps. The students must first deliver a draft paper of maximum 2000 words, on which they will receive comments from the teacher. A week after they receive these comments, students must turn in a final version of the assignment, of maximum 5000 words, text exceeding the word limit will not be read. 

The grade will be given based on the final version of the written assignment. It is obligatory to deliver both the draft paper and the final version of the written assignment.

Use of sources and rules for citing.

Be sure that you are familiar with the use of sources and the rules for citing/quoting from others’ work
UiO uses a plagiarism checking tool as one of several instruments for detecting suspicion of cheating and attempted cheating.

Examination support material

All exam resources allowed.

Language of examination

The examination text is given in English, and you submit your response in English.

Grading scale

Grades are awarded on a scale from A to F, where A is the best grade and F is a fail. Read more about the grading system.

Explanations and appeals

Resit an examination

Withdrawal from an examination

It is possible to take this exam up to 3 times. If you withdraw from the exam after the deadline or during the exam, this will be counted as an examination attempt.

There are special rules for resitting a passed examination in the master's programme in Law.

Special examination arrangements

Application form, deadline and requirements for special examination arrangements.


The course is subject to continuous evaluation. At regular intervals we also ask students to participate in a more comprehensive evaluation.

Facts about this course






Every spring


Every spring

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