Disputes over the scope of specific rights, e.g., over the right to free speech, the right to property, or the right to equality, often originate in differing assumptions concerning the reasons that justify the protection of these rights. Thus, those who believe that reasons of autonomy justify the right to free speech will identify the scope of this right differently from those who justify this protection through, say, appeal to the marketplace of ideas. Despite the diverse subject matter of these disputes, there is a uniform structure characterizing them. Some supporters of rights, call them “traditionalists,” locate the reasons that justify the protection of rights within individualistic concerns. Others, call them “revisionists,” deny this traditional claim and argue that rights can be partially or exclusively grounded in societal interests.
Traditionalism’ and ‘revisionism’ are terms stipulated to clarify the conceptual difference between two different understandings of rights. These understandings are often implicit in the way the term ‘rights’ is used in political or legal debates concerning the scope of particular rights. At other times, these implicit understandings of the term ‘rights’ are articulated more or less explicitly by moral or political philosophers investigating the nature of rights. Thus, when the terms ‘revisionist’ or ‘traditionalist’ are used in this article, they are used in two different ways. Sometimes, they denote implicit fundamental presuppositions about the nature of rights—presuppositions which underlie many of the contemporary debates over the scope of particular rights. At other times, they denote philosophical theories exploring systematically the nature of rights and the reasons underlying them.