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The "individual-i" symbol, invented by Bruce Schneier to promote individual rights.

Individual rights refer to the rights of individuals, in contrast with group rights. An individual right is the sanction of independent action. Both natural and legal conceptions or rights may distinguish between individual and group rights, although natural rights theories often limit themselves to discussion of individual rights, group rights thus existing mostly as legal rights. Likewise, while the distinction between individual and group rights may be largely coextensive with that between negative and positive rights, the two pairs of terms are not in fact cointensive; negative group rights and positive individual rights remain conceptual possibilities. Furthermore, while civil and political rights are predominantly concerned with the rights of individuals, leaving the rights of groups to the realm of economic, social and cultural rights, those sets of rights are not identical with the sets of individual rights and group rights either.

Individual rights advocates tend to argue for increased codification of individual legal rights to protect individuals from state infringement of their natural rights. This is traditionally associated with liberalism.


Western discourse

In Western discourse, individual rights are commonly assumed to be inversely related to social control. By contrast, much of the recent political discourse on individual rights in the People's Republic of China, particularly with respect to due process rights and rule of law, has focused on how protection of individual rights actually makes social control by the government more effective. For example, it has been argued that the people are less likely to violate the law if they believe that the legal system is likely to punish them if they actually violated the law and not punish them if they did not violate the law. By contrast, if the legal system is arbitrary then an individual has no incentive to actually follow the law.

Role of the government

In the minarchist political views of libertarians and classical liberals, the role of the government is solely to identify, protect, and enforce the natural rights of the individual while attempting to assure just remedies for transgressions. Liberal governments that respect individual rights often provide for systemic controls that protect individual rights such as a system of due process in criminal justice. Collectivist states are generally considered to be oppressive by such classical liberals and libertarians precisely because they do not respect individual rights.


In the United States, the Constitution outlines individual rights within the Bill of Rights. In Canada, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms serves the same function. One of the key differences between the two documents is that some rights in the Canadian Charter can be overridden by governments if they deliberately do so and "the resulting balance of individual rights and social rights remains appropriate to a free and democratic society"[citation needed] after the change. In practice, the Quebec government used the provision frequently in the early 1980s as a protest, and since then to maintain a ban on non-French public signs for five years. The government of Saskatchewan has used it for back-to-work legislation, and the government of Alberta sought to use it to define marriage as strictly heterosexual [1]. In contrast, in the United States, no such override exists even in theory; even a constitutional amendment could not remove these rights entirely, as they are considered inalienable under the natural rights principles the Constitution is founded upon.

Objectivist view

Ayn Rand, developer of the philosophy of Objectivism asserted that a group, as such, has no rights. A man can neither acquire new rights by joining a group nor lose the rights which he does possess. The principle of individual rights is the only moral base of all groups or associations. She maintained that since only an individual man can possess rights, the expression "individual rights" is a redundancy (which one has to use for purposes of clarification in today’s intellectual chaos), but the expression "collective rights" is a contradiction in terms. 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).[2]


  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^ Ayn Rand (1961), "Collectivized 'Rights,'" The Virtue of Selfishness.

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