Key Terms

Note About the Key Terms

The reader should be aware that most (if not all!) terms in philosophy and jurisprudence are the subject of much debate and criticism.  The following brief definitions are provided to help orient the reader to many of the terms that occur in the documents and essays featured on our website.  They are intended to provide a jumping-off point into a wider discussion about person, rights and justice.  Use the link at the bottom of the page if you'd like us to add any terms not listed here.



As in "absolute human rights": Without limitation.  However, it should be understood that ‘absolute’ is often used in different ways: (1) absolute in terms of nature (where the term "essential" may be more accurate) and (2) absolute "finis nihil" (without any kind of limitation).  The concept of rights according to the second use is generally rejected today as being both impractical and, at times, irrational.  Read more about the limitations of rights on our philosophy page, here.

Civil Right


A right which orders a person’s relation to the state such as the right to vote, rights to freedom from interference from the government, and economic and legal rights within the context of the state.  Civil, or political rights are often conflated with human rights.  While there is a certain amount of overlap between civil and human rights, the two should not be conflated.  For example, free speech may be considered both as a human right and a civil right.  As a human right, it describes the free exercise of reason and communication which belongs to us by nature.  As a civil right, it describes the right to speak in public and to protest as a citizen according to the law.


A theory of knowledge (epistemology) which suggests that statements are true if they cohere, or match, other known truth statements.  For example, If A + B = 8, and B + C = 6 then it will be consistent to claim that A + C = 14.  However, a problem with the coherentist position is that other results are equally coherent: A + C = 2 is also coherent.  In other words, truth -- according to coherentism -- is self-referential, and a closed system of reference can admit of different, but equally coherent, conclusions.  Coherentism is often contrasted with Foundationalism (see below).




A group or community takes priority over the individual.  The individual derives meaning and value from identification with, and acceptance by, the collective group.

Conditional & Unconditional

Among advocates of free speech, some hold that the right is absolute and conditional, while others hold that it is absolute and unconditional.   Find more about different attitudes to human rights, see the infographics here.



The "Ten Commandments" described in Exodus and Deuteronomy.  It provides the key reference point for the natural law theory and historical, Western notions of person, rights and justice.  See also the term Judeo-Christian, below; and our infographic on the Ten Commandments, here.


Ethical Formalism


A theory of ethics which attempts to establish right and wrong according to the logic of universal laws or principals.  It should not be confused with natural law.  Ethical formalism represents an attempt to establish a workable moral theory according to the operation of reason alone without any reference to external principles, such as natural law or religious authority.



A philosophical approach to life which emphasizes human autonomy and the ways in which the individual can achieve authenticity and freedom.  While there are different approaches to existentialist philosophy, one of its key characteristics is the emphasis on the human quest for personal meaning. "Existence precedes essence" is a phrase which is often associated with existentialism and it suggests that, once we are born, we spend the rest of our lives establishing our personal identities.  Existentialist thinkers have been both Christian (such as Kierkegaard) and non-religious or atheist (such as Sartre).

Finis Nihil

Literally, "limited by nothing" or "without any limitation".  Some advocates of free speech hold that it is a right "finis nihil": there are no limits on free speech.


In contrast to the theory of coherence (see above), foundationalist theories of knowledge attempt to avoid an infinite regress of justification by positing a foundational belief for knowledge that requires no justification itself.  In other words, if every proposition had to be justified, one could never establish any foundation for truth claims.  Therefore, foundationalists propose first, self-evident principles that require no justification and which serve as a starting point for all further claims about the nature of reality.  Foundationalists may propose self-evident truths as a starting point for reasoning (such as "I exist") or intuition (self-awareness, perception).


Free Speech


The right to think and speak freely.  It is considered both as a human rights and as a civil right.  As a human right, it entails the right not only to speak, but to exercise one's conscience by expressing ideas openly, without interference.  Like all rights, it is limited or circumscribed by our duty to respect the privacy and dignity of others. 


Human Right


A right to fulfill one’s nature as a human person.  Human rights are expressions of what it means to be human and, as such, are inalienable and universal.  Since human rights are about human nature and what it means to be a person, they belong to every person regardless of time or circumstance.  The exercise of rights are not, however, morally neutral and they must be considered in reference to both (a) the nature of the person as being in relation with others and (b) the proper exercise of reason which, by nature, is oriented to the truth.  In respect of (a), we should consider human rights in reference to virtue and natural justice; and in respect of (b) we should consider human rights in reference to the natural law.  Read our introduction to human rights philosophy, here.




The philosophy that holds each person is a totally autonomous individual with a right to self-determination without reference to anything beyond the individual.  One’s own reason is the ultimate judge of questions of morality. The self-determination of the individual may or may not be attenuated and limited by a legitimate government depending on one’s strand of individualism (anarchism, humanism).


A theological and cultural term referring to the trajectory of common religious and moral beliefs shared by both Judaism and Christianity.  In general, this shared belief is rooted in the Torah or Pentateuch, the first five books of the Tanakh or Old Testament.  Among these shared beliefs: (1) there is one God, who is both transcendent and immanently involved in the history of his people; (2) the human person is made in the image and likeness of God; (3) the Jewish people are the "Chosen People of God" (Christianity understands itself to be a a promised fulfillment of Judaism, but not an abrogation of the divinely Chosen status of the Jewish people); (4) God has imparted his law to the human race, which comes to us through the Ten Commandments and, according to Christianity, the fulfillment of this Law in Jesus Christ; (5) we can participate in the divine life through liturgy; (6) human reason is oriented to participation in the divine: God has written his Law in the hearts and minds of each person; (7) each one of us is called to live a life of holiness according to virtue.  This Judeo-Christian legacy informs all of Western Culture, including jurisprudence, morality, and our understanding of human rights and dignity.


An inordinate reliance on the "law" as a means to establishing order and meaning. Alexandr Solzhenitsyn describes it well, "Western society has chosen for itself the organization best suited to its purposes and one I might call legalistic. The limits of human rights and rightness are determined by a system of laws; such limits are very broad. People in the West have acquired considerable skill in using, interpreting, and manipulating law (though laws tend to be too complicated for an average person to understand without the help of an expert). Every conflict is solved according to the letter of the law and this is considered to be the ultimate solution."  Read the full text here.



The branch of philosophy which deals with the nature of being itself (being qua being), or the most fundamental reality underlying being, without which something could not be said to exist.  The term is often used broadly, to refer to any question which seeks an answer to the most fundamental aspect of something, such as "human rights": what is a human right?  More specifically, what is a right in itself, and what properties or features does it have?  The answer will need to be broad enough to encompass everything signified by the word "right", and narrow enough to exclude anything falling outside of this signification.

Natural Law


A theory of morality which holds that human reason is oriented, by nature, to truth, goodness and being.  Human reason cannot, however, determine every moral precept on its own, due to its limited and unreliable ability to make sound judgements consistently.  In the Judeo-Christian tradition, human reason is aided in its task of making moral judgements by the Ten Commandments, or “divine law”.  Natural law theory is controversial and is, generally speaking, rejected by materialist or post-modern moral theorists.  You can read more on the natural law in our Jacques Maritain page, here.




The definition of person is controversial in philosophy, science, politics and law.  Philosophy is concerned with the person from a metaphysical point of view; science is concerned with the person from a biological and psychological point of view; politics is concerned with the person as “subject” or “citizen”; and law is concerned with the person as a legal entity according to age and status.  Behind all of these approaches, however, is an implicit assumption about the nature of the person.


Many of us rely, at least intuitively, on a historic Judeo-Christian notion of a person as a unique, incommunicable instantiation of human nature.  According to this tradition, that person has value and meaning in history and the cosmos.  The value and meaning of the person is only fully realized in a relationship with God, who is the source and destiny of human nature.


With the advent of postmodern interpretations, it has been difficult to reconcile the historic Judeo-Christian assumption about human dignity with assumptions about human independence from religion and authority.  From the point of view of post-modernism the person is without ultimate value or meaning, at least in any religious or divine context.  Relative value and meaning is established either through the self-determination of the individual without reference to anything beyond the individual (individualism) or within the context of a group, from which the person derives his or her total identity (collectivism).  Read our primer on the philosophy of the person, here.



A philosophical movement which emphasizes the inherent dignity of the human person.  One of the leading proponents of the movement was French philosopher, Emmanuel Mounier (1905-1950).  Personalism considers the human person as being actualized, or reaching full potential, in the context of community or society.  The person is, by nature, a communal being and flourishes in cooperation with others, working towards a common good.  A number of personalists, such as Emmanuel Mounier and Max Scheler emphasize a hierarchy of values as a method of informing judgements about rights and justice.



A varied term which challenges traditional notions of the person, meaning and reality.  It is a philosophy which has influenced art, literary theory, architecture and politics.  In terms of the human person, postmodernism challenges concepts such as “nature”, “destiny” and “meaning.”  It suggests that there is no fixed meaning to things, other than what the individual determines.  It has given rise to such ideologies as “relativism” and “individualism.”  It calls into question our ability to speak objectively about truth, religion and reason.



The philosophical belief which holds that the world exists independently of my ideas and language; I do not construct reality, but reality is "given"; truth, according to the realist, is the agreement of my thought with the thing thought about.



A freedom to act according to positive or human law (civil rights) or according to human nature (human rights).  In contemporary discourse, civil and human rights are often conflated; according to a collectivist and post-modern view, for example, a human right is a particular freedom which is recognized—and thereby vindicated and justified—by the state.


Sui Juris


“Of one’s own right”.  In positive law, a person is sui juris competent to manage his or her own affairs according to age, legal status and mental capacity.  In natural law, a person sui juris possesses his or her own human nature in its totality.

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