|Natural and legal rights
Claim rights and liberty rights
Negative and positive rights
Individual and Group rights
|Human rights divisions|
Civil and political
Economic, social and cultural
|Animals · Humans
Men · Women
Fathers · Mothers
Children · Youth · Fetuses · Students
Indigenous · Minorities · LGBT
|Other groups of rights|
|Authors' · Digital · Labor
Linguistic · Reproductive
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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").
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:
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 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.
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.
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:
Natural rights are inherent choices found by some philosophers to exist logically for each individual, whether they are protected, or infringed, by society, government, or other social interaction.
Civil rights are a class of rights that ensure one's ability to participate in the civil and political life of the state without discrimination or repression.
Human rights refer to the "basic rights and freedoms to which all humans are entitled", including civil and political rights, such as the right to life and liberty, freedom of expression, and equality before the law; and economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to participate in culture, the right to food, the right to work, and the right to education.
Yes: all men believe and repeat that equality of conditions is identical with equality of rights; that property and robbery are synonymous terms; that every social advantage accorded, or rather usurped, in the name of superior talent or service, is iniquity and extortion. All men in their hearts, I say, bear witness to these truths; they need only to be made to understand it.
|←Purposes and Consequences||Rights by
From Earth-Hunger and Other Essays
|Likely written around the period 1900–06 (see the Preface).|
[ 79 ]The notion that there are such things as "natural" rights is due to the fact that rights originate in the mores, and may remain there long before they can be formulated (because it requires some mental development to be able to formulate them) in philosophical propositions, or in laws. The notion of "natural" rights is the notion that rights have independent authority in absolute right, so that they are not relative or contingent, but absolute.
The interests of men always clash in the competition of life. It is inevitable, on account of the organization of society, that this should be so. Even in the lowest form of the division of labor, that between the sexes, independent interests clash in the distribution of the products. The man there carries his point, if necessary, with the help of the other men, and a precedent is established by force, which through subsequent repetition becomes a law, and carries in itself a definition of rights between men and women.
The question of right or rights can arise only in the in-group. All questions with outsiders are settled by war. It is meritorious to rob outsiders of property or women, or to invade any of their interests; it is meritorious also to repel and punish any efforts of theirs to invade the interests of one's group-comrades. War with group-comrades is "wrong," because it lessens the power of the in-group for war with outsiders. Here, then, is [ 80 ]where other devices must be invented. Chiefs and medicine-men imposed decisions which were laws by precedent; they were inculcated by ritual; sanctioned after a few generations by the ghosts of ancestors; enforced by all members of the in-group. The right thing to do was to obey the tradition or "law." Obedience was duty. The notion of societal welfare was taught by the tradition, for the usage of ancestors admitted of no doubt as true and right. Thus law, order, peace, duty, and rights were all born in the in-group at the same time, and they are all implicit in the interest of war-power. The rights were most deeply implicit, and it took the longest time to draw them forth. They came out in proverbs, maxims, and myths—as rules of action in classes of cases, as dicta of the gods, in whose name the shamans spoke. The usual form of a law was a taboo—"thou shalt not." The reason or motive of the taboo needed not to be understood; it was mystic and ritual, because it came from ancestors and was sanctioned by them. There was no reflection on it, for it was authoritative. It was the most imperative form of the mores, because the whole society would enforce it with the highest sanctions. There was no discussion about it; the rule was: obey or perish.
The earliest taboos probably were about religious rites and duties. In any primitive code the things forbidden range from things of primary and unlimited importance to trivial matters of ritual; in the ten commandments in the twentieth chapter of Exodus, the second, third, and fourth concern matters of little social importance compared with the last five. When taboos are analyzed, and their spirit is developed in a positive form, we get a proposition in the doctrine of rights. For instance, the taboo in the sixth commandment is on murder. The [ 81 ]right of the murdered man to live is a positive proposition, capable of some ethical discussion and elaboration, but not capable of enactment in the form of a statute. The right to property is a positive proposition implicit in the prohibition of stealing, but no legislature could enact the right of property in a modern statute. It follows that the "rights" are philosophical propositions implicit in the taboos, and to the modern way of thinking, they seem to be assumed in them; but they were never formulated or thought by anybody before the taboo was started. Hence the modem philosophers invented the notion of "natural" rights to bring in the jural notions in advance of the law. In the American Declaration of Independence, the first paragraph is made up of propositions in political philosophy to serve as a basis of right for the secession of the colonies from the British Empire; they might all be admitted and yet not justify the secession. The Southerners clung to the dogmas and were led by them to believe that secession could be proved in debate, or deduced rationally in logic, but it is entirely impossible to establish rationally a right of revolution; it would be establishing a state on the prime doctrine of anarchy. So it seems that the notions of rights, which are logically antecedent to laws, never can be put into laws. They must remain in the mores, and may be discussed in philosophy, but can be reduced to formulas not at all, or only very imperfectly.
In our times, the phraseology of rights is so current in the mores and in political discussion, that almost every proposition drops into that form. Every civilized state now contains groups who are recalcitrant and protesting, expressing their pain in terms of violated rights. They were the weaker parties in some collision of interests. There had to be a decision at last because life must go [ 82 ]on; and the decision was enforced by the society. This was a use of force, just as men settled disputes with women by force. All the great fabric of what we now prize so highly and justly as rights, has come out of such acts of force against some defeated parties; the only difference is that, in thousands of years, the dictates of law and the adjustment of interests have been modified and revised by better views of life. Rights have come to be expressions of the rules of the game in the competition of life. The in-group has become stronger, especially in the higher civilization, as the contentment and satisfaction of all members have become greater. This has depended very much on the economic power of members of the group. If they could work and earn, save and enjoy in security, they have not cared to dispute about rights; but if the struggle for existence has been hard, they have been apt to think that a readjustment of the social conventions which governed the competition of life might be to their advantage. Hard times, therefore, have produced civil conflicts and re-definition of rights.
If in any state the civil power becomes weak, as in Turkey or Central America, rights become insecure, that is, non-existent. A man is heard declaiming and denouncing; he talks about his "rights" as if they floated in the atmosphere, and ought to come floating to him by a divine spirit in them, independently of all physical or conventional conditions. This is the modem mythology and political metaphysics which we have inherited from the eighteenth century. A defeated litigant comes out of the best court in the most civilized state, angry, denouncing injustice and violation of rights, and declaiming solemn "doctrines" of justice and liberty and, above all, of "rights." A legislative minority also propounds doctrines of rights in order to establish its case against votes; [ 83 ]and when it fails, it hugs its great principles of rights. The philosophers, publicists, reformers, and agitators always argue in terms of rights (especially natural rights); they become rebels, revolutionists, anarchists, dynamiters, in the name of rights, and, if they come to prison or the scaffold, they still declaim in terms of the same vocabulary. A criminal becomes a martyr if he can put his crime under some great generalization about rights. We have all been educated by the modern civil mores to think of rights as something metaphysical, above and behind laws and institutions, greater than they, and with some inherent power to transmute themselves out of oratory and resolutions into facts.
It is certainly far wiser to think of rights as rules of the game of social competition which are current now and here. They are not absolute. They are not antecedent to civilization. They are a product of civilization, or of the art of living as men have practised it and experimented on it, through the whole course of history. They must be enjoyed under existing circumstances, that is, subject to limitations of tradition, custom, and fact. To be real they must be recognized in laws and provided for by institutions, but a great many of them, being inchoate, unsettled, partial, and limited, are still in the mores, and therefore vague and in need of further study and completion by courts and legislatures. This further work will be largely guided by the mores as to cognate matters, and by the conceptions of right and social welfare which the mores produce.
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A right is a thing which people think we should not let people take away from other people.
Many people say that we have a "right to life". That means that other people cannot kill us because that is taking our lives away. Also we may have a "right to property". That means that people cannot steal things that are ours.
If you have a right, it only means that other people cannot take that thing away from you. It does not mean they have to give it to you. It does not mean they have to help you get it.
In many countries people have a "right to free speech" which means other people cannot stop them saying what they want to. But if they go to a television studio and say they want to speak on the television, the owner of the television studio can say no. This is because he is not taking anything away from them. He is choosing not to give them something. Also if they are in another person's home and you they something they do not like, the owner of the home can ask them to leave, because although they have a right to free speech they do not have a right to be in another person's home.