Rights are legal, social, or ethical principles of freedom or
entitlement; that is, rights are the fundamental normative rules about
what is allowed of people or owed to people, according to some legal
system, social convention, or ethical theory.
Rights are of
essential importance in such disciplines as law and ethics, especially
theories of justice and deontology.
Rights are often considered fundamental to civilization, for they are
regarded as established pillars of society and culture, and the
history of social conflicts can be found in the history of each right
and its development. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of
Philosophy, "rights structure the form of governments, the content of
laws, and the shape of morality as it is currently perceived".
1 Definitional issues
1.1 Natural versus legal
1.2 Claim versus liberty
1.3 Positive versus negative
1.4 Individual versus group
1.5 Other senses
6 See also
8 External links
Rights are widely regarded as the basis of law, but what if laws are
bad? Some theorists suggest civil disobedience is, itself, a right,
and it was advocated by thinkers such as Henry David Thoreau, Martin
Luther King Jr., and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.
There is considerable disagreement about what is meant precisely by
the term rights. It has been used by different groups and thinkers for
different purposes, with different and sometimes opposing definitions,
and the precise definition of this principle, beyond having something
to do with normative rules of some sort or another, is controversial.
One way to get an idea of the multiple understandings and senses of
the term is to consider different ways it is used. Many diverse things
are claimed as rights:
A right to life, a right to choose; a right to vote, to work, to
strike; a right to one phone call, to dissolve parliament, to operate
a forklift, to asylum, to equal treatment before the law, to feel
proud of what one has done; a right to exist, to sentence an offender
to death, to launch a nuclear first strike, to carry a concealed
weapon, to a distinct genetic identity; a right to believe one's own
eyes, to pronounce the couple husband and wife, to be left alone, to
go to hell in one's own way.
There are likewise diverse possible ways to categorize rights, such
Who is alleged to have the right: Children's rights, animal rights,
workers' rights, states' rights, the rights of peoples. What actions
or states or objects the asserted right pertains to:
Rights of free
expression, to pass judgment; rights of privacy, to remain silent;
property rights, bodily rights. Why the rightholder (allegedly) has
the right: Moral rights spring from moral reasons, legal rights derive
from the laws of the society, customary rights are aspects of local
customs. How the asserted right can be affected by the rightholder's
actions: The inalienable right to life, the forfeitable right to
liberty, and the waivable right that a promise be kept.
There has been considerable debate about what this term means within
the academic community, particularly within fields such as philosophy,
law, deontology, logic, political science, and religion.
Natural versus legal
According to some views, certain rights derive from deities or nature
Main article: Natural and legal rights
Natural rights are rights which are "natural" in the sense of "not
artificial, not man-made", as in rights deriving from human nature or
from the edicts of a god. They are universal; that is, they apply to
all people, and do not derive from the laws of any specific society.
They exist necessarily, inhere in every individual, and can't be taken
away. For example, it has been argued that humans have a natural right
to life. These are sometimes called moral rights or inalienable
Legal rights, in contrast, are based on a society's customs, laws,
statutes or actions by legislatures. An example of a legal right is
the right to vote of citizens. Citizenship, itself, is often
considered as the basis for having legal rights, and has been defined
as the "right to have rights". Legal rights are sometimes called civil
rights or statutory rights and are culturally and politically relative
since they depend on a specific societal context to have meaning.
Some thinkers see rights in only one sense while others accept that
both senses have a measure of validity. There has been considerable
philosophical debate about these senses throughout history. For
Jeremy Bentham believed that legal rights were the essence of
rights, and he denied the existence of natural rights; whereas Thomas
Aquinas held that rights purported by positive law but not grounded in
natural law were not properly rights at all, but only a facade or
pretense of rights.
Claim versus liberty
A deed is an example of a claim right in the sense that it asserts a
right to own land. This particular deed dates back to 1273.
Main article: Claim rights and liberty rights
A claim right is a right which entails that another person has a duty
to the right-holder. Somebody else must do or refrain from doing
something to or for the claim holder, such as perform a service or
supply a product for him or her; that is, he or she has a claim to
that service or product (another term is thing in action). In
logic, this idea can be expressed as: "Person A has a claim that
person B do something if and only if B has a duty to A to do that
something." Every claim-right entails that some other duty-bearer must
do some duty for the claim to be satisfied. This duty can be to act or
to refrain from acting. For example, many jurisdictions recognize
broad claim rights to things like "life, liberty, and property"; these
rights impose an obligation upon others not to assault or restrain a
person, or use their property, without the claim-holder's permission.
Likewise, in jurisdictions where social welfare services are provided,
citizens have legal claim rights to be provided with those
A liberty right or privilege, in contrast, is simply a freedom or
permission for the right-holder to do something, and there are no
obligations on other parties to do or not do anything. This can be
expressed in logic as: "Person A has a privilege to do something if
and only if A has no duty not to do that something." For example, if a
person has a legal liberty right to free speech, that merely means
that it is not legally forbidden for them to speak freely: it does not
mean that anyone has to help enable their speech, or to listen to
their speech; or even, per se, refrain from stopping them from
speaking, though other rights, such as the claim right to be free from
assault, may severely limit what others can do to stop them.
Liberty rights and claim rights are the inverse of one another: a
person has a liberty right permitting him to do something only if
there is no other person who has a claim right forbidding him from
doing so. Likewise, if a person has a claim right against someone
else, then that other person's liberty is limited. For example, a
person has a liberty right to walk down a sidewalk and can decide
freely whether or not to do so, since there is no obligation either to
do so or to refrain from doing so. But pedestrians may have an
obligation not to walk on certain lands, such as other people's
private property, to which those other people have a claim right. So a
person's liberty right of walking extends precisely to the point where
another's claim right limits his or her freedom.
Positive versus negative
Main article: Negative and positive rights
In one sense, a right is a permission to do something or an
entitlement to a specific service or treatment from others, and these
rights have been called positive rights. However, in another sense,
rights may allow or require inaction, and these are called negative
rights; they permit or require doing nothing. For example, in some
countries, e.g. the United States, citizens have the positive right to
vote and they have the negative right to not vote; people can choose
not to vote in a given election without punishment. In other
countries, e.g. Australia, however, citizens have a positive right to
vote but they don't have a negative right to not vote, since voting is
Positive rights are permissions to do things, or entitlements to be
done unto. One example of a positive right is the purported "right to
Negative rights are permissions not to do things, or entitlements to
be left alone. Often the distinction is invoked by libertarians who
think of a negative right as an entitlement to non-interference such
as a right against being assaulted.
Though similarly named, positive and negative rights should not be
confused with active rights (which encompass "privileges" and
"powers") and passive rights (which encompass "claims" and
Individual versus group
Main article: Individual and group rights
The general concept of rights is that they are possessed by
individuals in the sense that they are permissions and entitlements to
do things which other persons, or which governments or authorities,
can not infringe. This is the understanding of people such as the
Ayn Rand who argued that only individuals have rights,
according to her philosophy known as Objectivism. However, others
have argued that there are situations in which a group of persons is
thought to have rights, or group rights. Accordingly:
Individual rights are rights held by individual people regardless of
their group membership or lack thereof.
Do groups have rights? Some argue that when soldiers bond in combat,
the group becomes like an organism in itself and has rights which
trump the rights of any individual soldier.
Group rights have been argued to exist when a group is seen as more
than a mere composite or assembly of separate individuals but an
entity in its own right. In other words, it's possible to see a group
as a distinct being in and of itself; it's akin to an enlarged
individual, a corporate body, which has a distinct will and power of
action and can be thought of as having rights. For example, a platoon
of soldiers in combat can be thought of as a distinct group, since
individual members are willing to risk their lives for the survival of
the group, and therefore the group can be conceived as having a
"right" which is superior to that of any individual member; for
example, a soldier who disobeys an officer can be punished, perhaps
even killed, for a breach of obedience. But there is another sense of
group rights in which people who are members of a group can be thought
of as having specific individual rights because of their membership in
a group. In this sense, the set of rights which
individuals-as-group-members have is expanded because of their
membership in a group. For example, workers who are members of a group
such as a labor union can be thought of as having expanded individual
rights because of their membership in the labor union, such as the
rights to specific working conditions or wages. As expected, there is
sometimes considerable disagreement about what exactly is meant by the
term "group" as well as by the term "group rights."
There can be tension between individual and group rights. A classic
instance in which group and individual rights clash is conflicts
between unions and their members. For example, individual members of a
union may wish a wage higher than the union-negotiated wage, but are
prevented from making further requests; in a so-called closed shop
which has a union security agreement, only the union has a right to
decide matters for the individual union members such as wage rates.
So, do the supposed "individual rights" of the workers prevail about
the proper wage? Or do the "group rights" of the union regarding the
proper wage prevail? Clearly this is a source of tension.
Austrian School of Economics holds that only individuals think,
feel, and act whether or not members of any abstract group. The
society should thus according to economists of the school be analyzed
starting from the individual. This methodology is called
methodological individualism and is used by the economists to justify
Other distinctions between rights draw more on historical association
or family resemblance than on precise philosophical distinctions.
These include the distinction between civil and political rights and
economic, social and cultural rights, between which the articles of
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Universal Declaration of Human Rights are often divided. Another
conception of rights groups them into three generations. These
distinctions have much overlap with that between negative and positive
rights, as well as between individual rights and group rights, but
these groupings are not entirely coextensive.
In the United States, persons who are going to be questioned by police
when they are in police custody must be read their "Miranda rights".
Miranda warning requires police officers to read a statement to
people being arrested which informs them that they have certain
rights, such as the right to remain silent and the right to have an
Rights are often included in the foundational questions that
governments and politics have been designed to deal with. Often the
development of these socio-political institutions have formed a
dialectical relationship with rights.
Rights about particular issues, or the rights of particular groups,
are often areas of special concern. Often these concerns arise when
rights come into conflict with other legal or moral issues, sometimes
even other rights. Issues of concern have historically included labor
rights, LGBT rights, reproductive rights, disability rights, patient
rights and prisoners' rights. With increasing monitoring and the
information society, information rights, such as the right to privacy
are becoming more important.
Some examples of groups whose rights are of particular concern include
animals, and amongst humans, groups such as children and youth,
parents (both mothers and fathers), and men and women.
Accordingly, politics plays an important role in developing or
recognizing the above rights, and the discussion about which behaviors
are included as "rights" is an ongoing political topic of importance.
The concept of rights varies with political orientation. Positive
rights such as a "right to medical care" are emphasized more often by
left-leaning thinkers, while right-leaning thinkers place more
emphasis on negative rights such as the "right to a fair trial".
Further, the term equality which is often bound up with the meaning of
"rights" often depends on one's political orientation. Conservatives
and libertarians and advocates of free markets often identify equality
with equality of opportunity, and want equal and fair rules in the
process of making things, while agreeing that sometimes these fair
rules lead to unequal outcomes. In contrast, socialists often identify
equality with equality of outcome and see fairness when people have
equal amounts of goods and services, and therefore think that people
have a right to equal portions of necessities such as health care or
economic assistance or housing.
In philosophy, meta-ethics is the branch of ethics that seeks to
understand the nature of ethical properties, statements, attitudes,
Meta-ethics is one of the three branches of ethics
generally recognized by philosophers, the others being normative
ethics and applied ethics.
While normative ethics addresses such questions as "What should one
do?", thus endorsing some ethical evaluations and rejecting others,
meta-ethics addresses questions such as "What is goodness?" and "How
can we tell what is good from what is bad?", seeking to understand the
nature of ethical properties and evaluations.
Rights ethics is an answer to the meta-ethical question of what
normative ethics is concerned with (
Meta-ethics also includes a group
of questions about how ethics comes to be known, true, etc. which is
not directly addressed by rights ethics).
Rights ethics holds that
normative ethics is concerned with rights. Alternative meta-ethical
theories are that ethics is concerned with one of the following:
Virtue (virtue ethics)
Consequences (consequentialism, e.g. utilitarianism)
Rights ethics has had considerable influence on political and social
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Universal Declaration of Human Rights gives some
concrete examples of widely accepted rights.
Some philosophers have criticised rights as ontologically dubious
entities. For instance, although in favour of the extension of
individual legal rights, the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham
opposed the idea of natural law and natural rights, calling them
"nonsense upon stilts". Further, one can question the ability of
rights to actually bring about justice for all.
Modern English word right derives from
Old English riht or reht,
in turn from
Proto-Germanic *riχtaz meaning "right" or "direct", and
ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *reg-to- meaning "having moved in
a straight line", in turn from *(o)reg'(a)- meaning "to straighten or
direct". In several different Indo-European languages, a single
word derived from the same root means both "right" and "law", such as
French droit, Spanish derecho, German Recht, and Italian
Many other words related to normative or regulatory concepts derive
from this same root, including correct, regulate, and rex
(meaning "king"), whence regal and thence royal. Likewise many
more geometric terms derive from this same root, such as erect (as in
"upright"), rectangle (literally "right angle"), straight
and stretch. Like right, the English words rule and ruler,
deriving still from the same root, have both normative or regulatory
and geometric meanings (e.g. a ruler as in a king, or a ruler as in a
Several other roots have similar normative and geometric descendants,
such as Latin norma, whence norm, normal, and
normative itself, and also geometric concepts such as normal
vectors; and likewise Greek ortho and Latin ordo, meaning
either "right" or "correct" (as in orthodox, meaning "correct
opinion") or "straight" or "perpendicular" (as in orthogonal,
meaning "perpendicular angle"), and thence order,
See also: History of human rights
Magna Carta or "Great Charter" was one of England's first
documents containing commitments by a king to his people to respect
certain legal rights. It reduced the power of the monarch.
Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen
Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789 in
The specific enumeration of rights has differed greatly in different
periods of history. In many cases, the system of rights promulgated by
one group has come into sharp and bitter conflict with that of other
groups. In the political sphere, a place in which rights have
historically been an important issue, constitutional provisions of
various states sometimes address the question of who has what legal
Historically, many notions of rights were authoritarian and
hierarchical, with different people granted different rights, and some
having more rights than others. For instance, the right of a father to
respected from his son did not indicate a right from the son to
receive a return from that respect; and the divine right of kings,
which permitted absolute power over subjects, did not leave a lot of
room for many rights for the subjects themselves.
In contrast, modern conceptions of rights have often emphasized
liberty and equality as among the most important aspects of rights, as
was evident in the American and French revolutions.
Important documents in the political history of rights include:
The Persian Empire of ancient Iran established unprecedented
principles of human rights in the 6th century BC under Cyrus the
Great. After his conquest of
Babylon in 539 BC, the king issued the
Cyrus cylinder, discovered in 1879 and seen by some today as the first
human rights document.
Constitution of Medina (622 AD; Arabia) instituted a number of
rights for the Muslim, Jewish, camp followers and "believers" of
Magna Carta (1215; England) required the King of
renounce certain rights and respect certain legal procedures, and to
accept that the will of the king could be bound by law, after King
John promised his barons he would follow the "law of the land". While
Magna Carta was originally a set of rules that the king had to follow,
and mainly protected the property of aristocratic landowners, today
Magna Carta is seen as the basis of certain rights for ordinary
people, such as the right of due process.
Declaration of Arbroath
Declaration of Arbroath (1320; Scotland) established the right of
the people to choose a head of state (see popular sovereignty).
Henrician Articles (1573; Poland-Lithuania) or King Henry's
Articles were a permanent contract that stated the fundamental
principles of governance and constitutional law in the
Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, including the rights of the nobility
to elect the king, to meet in parliament whose approval was required
to levy taxes and declare war or peace, to religious liberty and the
right to rebel in case the king transgressed against the laws of the
republic or the rights of the nobility.
The Bill of
Rights (1689; England) declared that Englishmen, as
embodied by Parliament, possess certain civil and political rights;
the Claim of Right (1689; Scotland) was similar but distinct.
Virginia Declaration of Rights
Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776) by
George Mason declared the
inherent natural rights and separation of powers.
United States Declaration of Independence (1776) succinctly
defined the rights of man as including, but not limited to, "Life,
liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" which later influenced
"liberté, égalité, fraternité" (liberty, equality, fraternity) in
France. The phrase can also be found in Chapter III, Article 13 of
the 1947 Constitution of Japan, and in President Ho Chi Minh's
1945 declaration of independence of the Democratic Republic of
Vietnam. An alternative phrase "life, liberty and property", is
found in the Declaration of Colonial Rights, a resolution of the First
Continental Congress. Also, Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of
Rights reads, "Everyone has the right to life, liberty and
security of person".
Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen
Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789;
France), one of the fundamental documents of the French Revolution,
defined a set of individual rights and collective rights of the
Statute for Religious Freedom (1785; United States),
Thomas Jefferson in 1779, was a document that asserted the
right of man to form a personal relationship with God free from
interference by the state.
United States Bill of
Rights (1789–1791; United States), the
first ten amendments of the
United States Constitution specified
rights of individuals in which government could not interfere,
including the rights of free assembly, freedom of religion, trial by
jury, and the right to keep and bear arms for self-defense.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) is an overarching set
of standards by which governments, organisations and individuals would
measure their behaviour towards each other. The
preamble declares that the "...recognition of the inherent dignity and
of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family
is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world..."
European Convention on Human Rights
European Convention on Human Rights (1950; Europe) was adopted
under the auspices of the
Council of Europe
Council of Europe to protect human rights
and fundamental freedoms.
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), a
follow-up to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, concerns civil
and political rights.
The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
(1966), another follow-up to the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights, concerns economic, social and cultural rights.
Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms
Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982; Canada) was created
to protect the rights of Canadian citizens from actions and policies
of all levels of government.
Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union
Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (2000) is one
of the most recent proposed legal instruments concerning human rights.
Outline of rights
Christianity and animal rights
Rule according to higher law
Equal rights (other), various meanings
Freedom of religion
Freedom of speech
Freedom of the press
Laws of England
History of citizenship
Wesley Newcomb Hohfeld
Right to food
Right to housing
Right to water
Right to an adequate standard of living
Right to health
Right to social security
United States Commission on Civil Rights
^ a b c d "Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy". Stanford University.
July 9, 2007. Retrieved 2009-12-21.
Rights dominate most modern
understandings of what actions are proper and which institutions are
Rights structure the forms of our governments, the contents of
our laws, and the shape of morality as we perceive it. To accept a set
of rights is to approve a distribution of freedom and authority, and
so to endorse a certain view of what may, must, and must not be
UDHR Preamble: "Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and
of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family
is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world..."
^ a b Fagan, Andrew. "Human Rights". Internet Encyclopedia of
^ a b "Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy". Stanford University. July
9, 2007. Retrieved 2009-12-21. A distinction between negative and
positive rights is popular among some normative theorists, especially
those with a bent toward libertarianism. The holder of a negative
right is entitled to non-interference, while the holder of a positive
right is entitled to provision of some good or service. A right
against assault is a classic example of a negative right, while a
right to welfare assistance is a prototypical positive right.
Ayn Rand (2009-12-18). "The
Virtue of Selfishness: Individual
Ayn Rand Lexicon. Retrieved 2009-12-18. Individual rights
are not subject to a public vote; a majority has no right to vote away
the rights of a minority; the political function of rights is
precisely to protect minorities from oppression by majorities (and the
smallest minority on earth is the individual). see page 104. See also:
^ Kate Pickert (Mar 9, 2009). "Undercover Animal-
Time Magazine. Retrieved 2009-12-21. One of the most powerful tools
animal-rights activists have is the video footage shot inside places
like poorly run dog kennels, animal-testing facilities and factory
farms, used as grim evidence of the brutality that can take place. But
how do animal-rights crusaders actually get those videos?
^ Victoria Burnett (July 26, 2007). "
Human Rights Watch
Human Rights Watch says migrant
children are at risk in Canary Islands". The New York Times. Retrieved
2009-12-21. They must immediately come up with a plan to close these
centers," Simone Troller, author of the report and a children's rights
Human Rights Watch
Human Rights Watch in Europe, said in a telephone
interview. "While these centers continue to exist, we believe children
continue to be at risk.
^ "Soap Operas Boost Rights, Global Economist Says". NPR. October 21,
2009. Retrieved 2009-12-21. Many of these locally produced programs
feature strong female characters. When Rede Globo began broadcasting
in its native Brazil in 1965 the average woman had about six
children—now the average woman has no children or one child.
^ John E. Roemer (December 14, 2005). "Roemer on equality of
opportunity". New Economist. Retrieved 2009-12-21. Equality of
opportunity is to be contrasted with equality of outcome. While
advocacy of the latter has been traditionally associated with a
left-wing political philosophy, the former has been championed by
conservative political philosophy.
Equality of outcome
Equality of outcome fails to hold
individuals responsible for imprudent actions that may, absent
redress, reduce the values of the outcomes they enjoy, or for wise
actions that would raise the value of the outcomes above the levels of
others’. Equality of opportunity, in contrast, ‘levels the playing
field,’ so that all have the potential to achieve the same outcomes;
whether or not, in the event, they do, depends upon individual
^ Harrison, Ross (1995). "Jeremy Bentham". In Honderich, Ted. The
Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford University Press.
pp. 85–88. Also see Sweet, William (11 April 2001).
"Jeremy Bentham". The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 7
^ "Divine Right of Kings". BBC. 2007-10-11. Retrieved 2009-12-21.
[...] the idea that a king was sacred, appointed by God and above the
judgment of earthly powers [...] was called the Divine Right of Kings
and it entered so powerfully into British culture during the 17th
century that it shaped the pomp and circumstance of the Stuart
monarchs, imbued the writing of Shakespeare and provoked the political
thinking of Milton and Locke.
^ "The First Global Statement of the Inherent Dignity and Equality".
United Nations. Retrieved 2010-09-13.
^ Lauren, Paul Gordon (2003). "Philosophical Visions: Human Nature,
Natural Law, and Natural Rights". The Evolution of International Human
Rights: Visions Seen. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
^ Robertson, Arthur Henry; Merrills, J. G. (1996).
Human rights in the
world : an introduction to the study of the international
protection of human rights. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
^ R. B. Serjeant, The Sunnah Jami'ah, pacts with the Yathrib Jews, and
the Tahrim of Yathrib: Analysis and translation of the documents
comprised in the so-called "Constitution of Medina". Bulletin of the
School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 41,
No. 1. (1978), p. 4.
^ Lepore, Jill (April 20, 2015). "The Rule of History: Magna Carta,
the Bill of Rights, and the hold of time". New Yorker.
^ Dyck, Rand (2000). Canadian Politics: Critical Approaches (3rd
edition). Thomas Nelson. ISBN 978-0-17-616792-9.
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