Theory of entitlement to benefit or possession.
Either because of natural law or divine or other moral principles, or as a result of actual practice often expressed in positive law, individuals and groups enjoy rights.
These are either actual and enforceable entitlements to control over their own persons and over material goods and services (a form of property), or claims to such entitlements.
David Miller et al., eds, The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Political Thought (1987)
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 as:
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
- 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 rights.
- 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 example, 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 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 guaranteed, citizens have legal claim rights to be provided with those services.
- 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
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 compulsory. Accordingly:
- Positive rights are permissions to do things, or entitlements to be done unto. One example of a positive right is the purported “right to welfare.”
- 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 “immunities”).
Individual versus group
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 author 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.
- 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.
The 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 individual rights.
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 the 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.
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, and judgments. 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:
- Duties (deontology)
- Value (axiology)
- Virtue (virtue ethics)
- Consequences (consequentialism, e.g. utilitarianism)
Rights ethics has had considerable influence on political and social thinking. The 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.