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Debate between John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant theories on the sources of human rights Research Paper

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Updated: Sep 3rd, 2021


One main reason why human rights have been put in place is to protect the public life and public space of every individual being. One fundamental characteristic of human rights is that they are equal rights; they are aimed at providing protection to every person in an equal way. These rights have been entrenched through laws that are passed by states and international conventions.

Human rights laws have evolved over time, and have been shaped by several factors, including philosophical theories in the past. This paper looks at the theories of two philosophers, Emmanuel Kant and John Stuart Mills, and how their teachings can be used to explain the sources of human rights.

John Stuart Mills’ theory of utilitarianism also forms a solid basis for human rights, especially his belief that utility is the supreme criterion for judging morality, with justice being subordinate to it. The paper looks at how the two philosophers qualify their teachings as the origins of human rights, and concludes that the moral philosophy of Kant is better than that of Mills.

Emmanuel Kant

Kant’s moral philosophy derives its origin the formal principles of ethics instead of human materialism. “All our knowledge begins with the senses, proceeds then to the understanding, and ends with reason. There is nothing higher than reason (Kant, 2008)”. It creates an ideal universal community of rational individuals who can collectively agree on the moral principles for guiding equality and autonomy.

This is what forms the basis for contemporary human rights theory according to Kant. He believes that moral principles are universal, and that all rational human beings are expected to conform to moral reasoning. He is implying that rational beings don’t do things out of their own selfish interests or desires, but to conform to certain standards expected of them.

Kant calls this the categorical imperative, and he described it thus, “Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” (Kant, 2008). This is the manner in which rational people are expected to behave and respond. At the same time, it is the manner in which such individual bring out their autonomy and equality.

All rational individuals who are morally autonomous willingly comply with the categorical imperative. They then use it to determine the form and scope of the laws, which they will institute to safeguard the important conditions that form the basis of human rights (Denise, Peterfreund & White, 1999, p.63). Kant is saying that human beings have the ability to apply reason, and this creates the need to protect human dignity.

This exercise of reason must meet the standards of universality, in that the laws formulated must be capable of being accepted universally by all equally rational individuals (Doyle, 1983, p. 143). Various accounts documenting the historical development of human rights overlook Kant’s moral philosophy, but it is very clear that, through the categorical imperative, he provides the ideals of moral autonomy and equality that form the basis of contemporary human rights.

After all, human rights are rights that humans have bestowed upon themselves as equal and autonomous beings. “Always treat people as ends in themselves, never as means to an end (Kant, 2008).” According to Kant, these rights come from the formal principles of human reason, and not from the will of some superior being.

The philosophical ideas put forth by Kant and other philosophers like Locke on natural rights, human dignity, moral autonomy, and equality have fueled the reconstitution of political systems over the centuries. Despotic regimes have been overthrown and replaced with political systems that are capable of protecting and promoting these human rights ideals.

The revolutions and political upheavals throughout the 18th century led to significant progress being made in various places regarding the protection of human rights through formal laws, and being enshrined in important documents like the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen by the French National Assembly and the Declaration of Independence by the United States.

Still, there were some atrocious violations of human rights during the 20th century, most notably the Holocaust, which led to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) being adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948 to prevent any future atrocities of such kind. There have been many other declarations, doctrines, and conventions protecting specific aspects of human rights.

All these declarations are based on the belief in a universally accepted moral order and equal moral status for all human beings, and are in line with what Kant articulated many years ago. The present day human rights laws recognize that the State has a major role to play in the realization of these rights by its citizens. After all, humanity is currently organized under various States, which are also guided by various international laws on how they relate to each other (Soccio, 1998, p. 36).

The reasons why Kant’s teachings can be taken as forming the basis of modern day human rights are recognition of equality for all human beings, and the universality of moral autonomy. Human rights are widely accepted and recognized in all parts of the world, same way Kant’s categorical imperative applies to all rational individuals.

John Stuart Mill

Mill’s contributions to the sources of human rights can be seen in his theory of utilitarianism, which he developed and modified over the years. At first, Mill agreed largely with the works of other philosophers like Bentham and John Mill that it is the law that determines which rights exist, and under what circumstances they exist or cease existing. He also believed that considerations of justice were superior to the obedience of the law.

Mill then proceeded to establish the fundamental distinctions between legal right and moral rights, outlining the two dimensions of their existence; validity and efficacy (Mill, Bentham & Ryan, 1986, p.120). He argued that the existence of a right and its protection by the state did not have to go hand in hand.

Therefore, despite the fact that there might be a situation in which specific rights were present and were acceptable globally, such people would not enjoy these rights due to the regulations of their specific states. In his further works, he came to state that rights get protection from society through the law; therefore, rights precede the law in existence.

The only place to base rights, without returning to the old metaphysical ways, is on morality. He regards justice as a representation of certain classes of moral rules. Justice is concerned with individual rights, and is part of morality. It is a form of morality agreed upon through consensus, and it is the society that defines it. A fully consensual morality is usually conservative, and is connected to law through justice.

There are those rights that lead to the making of laws since their moral basis is generally accepted, and there is consensus that they need to be protected. (Luban, 1980, p.49). These laws are intended towards the greater happiness of humanity. In essence, moral rights are contents of justice, and justice is the component of morality that is connected to legality. It is superior to law but not fully disconnected from it.

According to Mills explanations, two distinct features of rights present themselves with regards to their relationship with utilitarianism. First, rights cannot be separated from justice, and second, justice has a higher standing than law but it is still inferior to utility, which is regarded as the best measure of morality.

According to Mill, when a good deed has not been performed, it can be considered immoral, but since the doer has not failed to satisfy certain rights, it is taken that no injustice has been done. However, when the doer fails to perform a moral duty to another person, he or she will be taken to have caused harm to that other person, and will have, therefore, caused an injustice to that other person.

Justice is, therefore, that aspect of morality that is composed of rights and duties. “As long as justice and injustice have not terminated their ever renewing fight for ascendancy in the affairs of mankind, human beings must be willing, when need is, to do battle for the one against the other (Fitzpatrick, 2006, p. 87). Moral obligations are based on utility, so whenever any moral obligations seem to contradict, utility is applied to decide between them.

In any case, moral rights are not cast in stone, but are interpreted using certain criteria that have been agreed on. These criteria form the basis for laws that define human rights. Mill further implies that these rights are dependent on the State that enacts the laws to define them, and should the State fail to recognize them, then they are, in essence not rights.


Both Kant and Mill present valid points in their various interpretations of human rights based on their philosophies. Kant is more direct and concise with his idea of the categorical imperative, which forms the basis for defining human rights as they are known today. The fact that he characterizes them as universal and applicable to all human beings in equal measure makes his position very appealing and more easily acceptable.

After all, the hallmarks of contemporary human rights are that all human beings are equal, and as such should be treated equally (Gearon, 2006, p. 112). This treatment is based on some universally acceptable principles which apply everywhere regardless of the State or other forms of categorization like race, religion or ethnicity. Human rights as viewed in one part of the world, according to Kant, are viewed the same way all over by similarly rational beings.

Kant believes that all rational human beings should be able to apply reasoning in determining these human rights, and they should all come to the same agreements on the subject. Mill, in his arguments, seems to undermine the fundamental principle of human rights, which is their universality. First, he sets out to divide human rights into legal rights and moral rights.

Under legal rights, he bestows the power of their determination on the State, implying that people from different states will enjoy different rights based on the obligation of their states. His arguments on the connection between moral rights and justice are also a bit ambiguous. He claims that the failure to perform a moral duty results in an injustice to another person, yet the same moral rights are not absolute.

There are certain criteria that are used to define moral rights, and if an act of moral duty were not defined by these criteria then failure to perform it would not result in an injustice. This would create a situation where some people have more rights than others, based on their interpretation of moral rights in their various States.

This seems to contradict the universality principle of modern day human rights as defined by the UN Unilateral Declaration of Human Rights and all supporting treaties, conventions and declarations. From the two philosophers, it is clear that Kant’s theories are better when it comes to outlining the sources of human rights and defining the basis on which they are created.


Human rights aim to create equality amongst all human beings. For this to happen, all human beings must be regarded as equal. These rights must also be recognized the same in very place by every rational human being (Boehmer, Gartzke & Nordstrom, 2004, p. 43). These two fundamental principles can be traced back to Kant’s idea of the categorical imperative, which creates universal consensus amongst all rational human beings through reasoning (Farber & Gowa, 1997, p. 67).

It is these principles that are envisaged in the contemporary human rights laws as defined by the UN Unilateral Declaration of Human Rights. It is only by recognizing all human beings as equals, and having laws that define human rights equally in all spheres of the globe, that all human beings can have a chance to enjoy their rights as outlined in Kant’s moral philosophy.


Boehmer, C., Gartzke, E., & Nordstrom, T. (2004). Do IGOs Promote Peace? World Politics, 57 (1), 1-38.

Denise, T.C., Peterfreund, S. P., & White N. (1999). Great Traditions in Ethics. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Doyle, M. (1983). Kant, Liberal Legacies, and Foreign Affairs: Part II. Philosophy and Public Affairs, 12 (4), 323-53.

Farber, H. S., & Gowa, J. (1997). Common Interests or Common Politics? Reinterpreting the Democratic Peace. Journal of Politics, 59 (2), 393-417.

Fitzpatrick, J. R. (2006). John Stuart Mill’s Political Philosophy: Balancing Freedom and the Collective Good. London [u.a.: Continuum.

Gearon, L. (2006). Freedom of Expression and Human Rights: Historical, Literary and Political Contexts. Brighton [u.a.: Sussex Academic.

Kant, I. (2008). The Metaphysical Elements of Ethics. Rockville, Md: ARC Manor.

Luban, D. (1980). Just War and Human Rights. Philosophy and Public Affairs, 9 (2),160-81.

Mill, J. S., Bentham, J., & Ryan, A. (1987). Utilitarianism and Other Essays. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books.

Soccio, J. (1998). Archetypes of Wisdom. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

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