Political Science, Department of


Date of this Version



Published in Human Rights Review 7:1 (October 2005), pp. 49–75; doi: 10.1007/s12142-005-1002-3 Copyright © 2005 Springer Verlag. Used by permission.


This article explores Alan Gewirth’s argument for a secular foundation for the idea of human rights as a possible response to Michael J. Perry’s claim “that the idea of human rights is … ineliminably religious.” I examine Gewirth’s reasoning for constructing a theory, namely that existing theories are fundamentally flawed and leave the idea of human rights without a logically consistent foundation, before considering in detail his claims for the Principle of Generic Consistency (PGC). Having looked at his critique of numerous other theories, as well as at his own argument about human action grounding basic rights to freedom and well-being, I then offer a critique of Gewirth’s PGC. Ultimately my conclusion is that Gewirth’s theory relies too heavily on the notions, first, that we have a meta-desire not to contradict ourselves and, second, that we are unable to find persuasive justifications for our behavior that might allow us to avoid self-contradiction. If one is not troubled by charges of self-contradiction or, as is more often the case, one does not recognize that one’s victim is as much a human being as oneself, Gewirth’s theory will not seem particularly persuasive.