Natural Rights: Bentham and John Stuart Mill

H. L. A. Hart

in Essays on Bentham

Published in print November 1982 | ISBN: 9780198254683
Published online March 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780191681509 | DOI:
Natural Rights: Bentham and John Stuart Mill

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This chapter intends to make clear the surprising and instructive similarities and differences between Bentham and John Stuart Mill in their treatment of non-legal moral rights. Far from sharing Bentham's criticism of the notion as nonsensical or indeterminate, Mill thought it impossible to give an account of justice as a distinct segment of morality without recognizing that men have moral as well as legal rights including certain basic rights to liberty and security from harm. Yet in spite of this difference, he took seriously as a definition of moral right a half-mocking suggestion, made by Bentham, as to what those who talk loosely about natural or non-legal rights might conceivably mean by asserting their existence. This chapter argues that Mill's attempt to provide an indirect utilitarian foundation for such rights fails, and that the charge of indeterminacy or criterionlessness which Bentham made against the notion of basic moral rights, still awaits a satisfactory answer from those modern writers who have put forward various forms of right-based political theory.

Keywords: natural rights; Bentham; John Stuart Mill; non-legal rights; morality; political theory

Chapter.  10494 words. 

Subjects: Jurisprudence and Philosophy of Law

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