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Rights are variously construed as legal, social, or moral freedoms to act or refrain from acting, or entitlements to be acted upon or not acted upon. While the concept is fundamental to civilized societies, 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 the concept, beyond having something to do with normative rules of some sort or another, is controversial. Nevertheless, the concept of rights is of vital importance in such disciplines as law and ethics, especially theories of justice and deontology.
A wide variety of meanings
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, and political science. One way to look at different senses of the term of rights is to examine contrasting ideas about the concept.
Natural rights versus legal rights
According to some views, certain rights derive from God
- Natural rights are rights which are derived from Nature or God. They are universal; they don't depend on the laws of a specific society. They exist necessarily and can't be taken away. For example, it has been argued that humans have a natural right to life. They're 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 rights versus liberty rights
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.
- A claim right is a right which entails that another person has a duty to the right-holder. Somebody else must do something 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 or future act. 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, in many jurisdictions people have 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 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: "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, 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 is considerable but not total since, to an extent, a claim right limits his or her freedom.
Positive rights versus negative rights
In one sense, a right is a permission to do something or an entitlement to a specific service or treatment, 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 doing nothing. For example, in the United States, citizens have the positive right to vote and they have the negative right not to vote; people can stay home and watch television instead, if they desire. In Belgium, however, citizens have a positive right to vote but they don't have a negative right to not vote, since non-voting citizens can be fined. 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 and group rights
The general sense of right 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 thinkers such as Ayn Rand who argued that only individuals have rights, according to her philosophy called Objectivism. However, others have argued that there are situations in which a group of persons is thought to have rights, or group rights. Accordingly:
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 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.
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 and politics
In the United States
, a person being arrested must be read his "rights". The Miranda warning
assumes people don't understand what their rights are. So it requires police officers to read a statement to people being arrested which informs them that they have a "right to remain silent" and a "right to an attorney" and so forth.
Rights are often included in the foundational questions 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.
History of rights
The Magna Carta
or "Great Charter" was one of England's first documents containing commitments by a sovereign
to his people to respect certain legal
rights. It reduced the power of the monarch.
The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789 in France
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, at present the question of who has what legal rights is sometimes addressed by the constitutions of the respective nations.
Most historic notions of rights were authoritarian and hierarchical, with different people being granted different rights, and some having more rights than others. For instance, the right of a father to be respected by his son did not indicate a duty upon the father to return that respect, and the divine right of kings which permitted absolute power over subjects did not leave room for many rights to be granted to the subjects themselves.
In contrast, modern conceptions of rights often emphasize liberty and equality as among the most important aspects of rights, though conceptions of liberty (e.g. positive or negative) and equality (e.g. of opportunity or of outcome) frequently differ.
Important documents in the political history of rights include:
- The Constitution of Medina (622 AD; Arabia) instituted a number of rights and responsibilities for the Muslim, Jewish and pagan communities of Medina, establishing religious freedoms, the security of women, a system for granting protection of individuals, and a judicial system.
- The Magna Carta (1215; England) required the King of England to renounce certain rights and respect certain legal procedures, and to accept that the will of the king could be bound by law.
- 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.
- The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789; France) was one of the fundamental documents of the French Revolution, defining a set of individual rights and collective rights of the people.
- The 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 so forth.
- The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) is an over-arching 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..."
- The European Convention on Human Rights (1950; Europe) was adopted under the auspices of the Council of Europe to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms.
- The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) is a follow-up to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, concerning civil and political rights.
- The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966) is another follow-up to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, concerning economic, social and cultural rights.
- The 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.
- The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (2000) is one of the most recent proposed legal instruments concerning human rights.
- ^ a b "Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy". Stanford University. July 9, 2007. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rights/. Retrieved 2009-12-21. "Rights dominate most modern understandings of what actions are proper and which institutions are just. 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 done."
- ^ a b "Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy". Stanford University. July 9, 2007. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rights/. 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 Rights". The Ayn Rand Lexicon. http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/individual_rights.html. 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: Collectivized 'Rights"
- ^ Kate Pickert (Mar. 09, 2009). "Undercover Animal-Rights Investigator". Time Magazine. http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1883742,00.html. 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 says migrant children are at risk in Canary Islands". The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/26/world/europe/26iht-abuse.4.6849724.html. Retrieved 2009-12-21. ""They must immediately come up with a plan to close these centers," Simone Troller, author of the report and a childrens' rights researcher for 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. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=113870313. 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. http://neweconomist.blogs.com/new_economist/2005/12/roemer_on_equal.html. 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 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 choice."
- ^ "Divine Right of Kings". BBC. 2007-10-11. http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/history/inourtime/inourtime_20071011.shtml. Retrieved 2009-12-21. "The idea that a monarch could heal with his touch flowed from the idea that a king was sacred, appointed by God and above the judgement of earthly powers. It 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."
- ^ 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), page 4.