Foundations of Universal Human Rights: Wollstonecraft's Rational Theology and Mill's Liberal Utilitarianism


Location: Hesburgh Center, Room C103

Eileen Hunt Botting, associate professor of political science, Kroc Institute faculty fellow

Neither Mary Wollstonecraft nor John Stuart Mill had the luxury of starting with the “given” of universal human rights. Rather, each had to construct an argument for the establishment of rights as legal and cultural “givens” for all humans, particularly in the case of historically oppressed groups such as women and African slaves.

In this talk, Botting will defend the ongoing relevance of such foundationalist, or humanistic, arguments as working in tandem with contemporary non-foundationalist, or political, human rights approaches by John Rawls and others. As with Wollstonecraft, Mill, and Amartya Sen, she understands abstract arguments for human rights—grounded on either metaphysical or value-laden naturalistic conceptions of the human being—as critical tools for alleging how rights ought to be specified and realized in law and policy.

The justification of human rights via (secular or theological) humanistic foundations has important practical implications for effective allegation and subsequent dissemination of human rights.

She will set forth analyses of Wollstonecraft and Mill’s respectively theological and secular approaches to grounding women’s human rights arguments. She also will compare the advantages and disadvantages of each in the context of historic and contemporary debates on religious polygamy (technically, polygyny—a man having more than one wife) as a women’s human rights issue.

Originally published at