Can Liberalism Incorporate Group Human Rights?


The protection of indigenous peoples and minority languages, as well as the guarantee of outreach to disadvantaged groups, can be considered using the language of human rights – specifically, group human rights. Liberalism is the view that individuals’ freedoms ought to be protected against the competing interests of other entities. From a liberal point of view, a number of challenges to the idea of group rights present themselves. Against these, I will argue that it makes more sense for a coherent liberalism to incorporate group rights than to deny them. I aim to achieve this in two main argumentative steps: by establishing the link between groups, identity and human dignity, and by borrowing the phrase ‘standard threat to human dignity’ (Donnelly 2013: 49) to identify groups that can bear group rights – whose protection is necessary to safeguard the dignity that, arguably, is the very thing that provides the foundation for any human rights claims in the first place. In Part 1, I set out the liberal view. In Part 2, I make my first main argumentative move by identifying a powerful relation between groups and human dignity through the idea of identity. In Part 3, I examine the objection that, even accepting the value of certain groups, group rights can be reduced to individual rights, or that group rights pose too great a danger to individuals and their liberties to go any further with the idea. I respond that, were liberalism to accept either of these objections, it would leave important work undone. In Part 4, once the possibility of group rights has been established, I examine their place in relation to other rights. The important question is not the ontological ‘what is a group?’ but the normative question, ‘what kind of group has the moral weight to be entitled to group rights?’ I make my second main argumentative move by suggesting a ‘standard threat to human dignity’ (Donnelly 2013: 49) condition that answers the normative question: what is at stake is the protection of the groups that, as established in Part 2, are an indispensable part of the identity and human dignity that grounds human rights claims in the first place. This discussion leads to an answer to the more basic question about the moral status of groups. In Part 5, I conclude that it makes more sense for a coherent liberalism to incorporate group rights than to deny them.


Human Rights, Group Rights, Liberalism

How to Cite

Reid, T., (2015) “Can Liberalism Incorporate Group Human Rights?”, Opticon1826 17, Art. 6.







Thomas Reid (UCL)



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