Philosophy Ph.D. Dissertations


Natural Rights and Convention

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Philosophy, Applied

First Advisor

Fred Miller (Advisor)

Second Advisor

Kevin Vallier (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Albert Dzur (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Eric Mack (Committee Member)

Fifth Advisor

Kevin Quinn (Other)


According to natural rights theory, both individual actions and political institutions must respect people’s natural rights—those rights that belong to people in virtue of what they are (human beings or persons), not in virtue of their particular social or political circumstances. This dissertation addresses a common worry about natural rights theory, which I call the “Conventionalist Challenge.” The Conventionalist Challenge charges that natural rights theory fails to account for the ways that people’s moral rights depend on social and legal conventions. I develop a form of natural rights theory that overcomes the Conventionalist Challenge. I argue that while people have natural rights, the precise requirements of these rights are spelled out by conventions. In fact, I argue, our natural rights morally require that we create conventions that spell out the fine-grained details of what we owe one another. This view captures what is attractive about natural rights theory—the idea that all human beings have rights that political institutions (and other individuals) must respect—without denying that our moral rights also depend in important ways on local conventions.