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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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

Street protest scene; people deliberately lying down on a busy city street, surrounded by onlookers and police
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 Gandhi.

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.[1]

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.[1]

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

painting of a dark gray skies with trees and water, and a human image, flying, with arms outstretched
According to some views, certain rights derive from God or Nature
  • 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

Picture of a deed which has hand-written writing on a yellowed piece of paper with three gold tassles at the bottom
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."[2]
  • 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.[2]

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.[3] However, others have argued that there are situations in which a group of persons is thought to have rights, or group rights. Accordingly:

Soldiers lined up in a row, with green caps, carrying rifles
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 senses

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

three police officers surround a man in a tee shirt who is handcuffed
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,[4] and amongst humans, groups such as children[5] and youth, parents (both mothers and fathers), and men and women.[6]

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.[7]

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.
Picture of a painting; the painting is of a written declaration; there are two human images to the left and right; it says "Declaration des droits de l'homme" (declaration of the rights of man)
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.[8]

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:

Notable people



See also


  1. ^ a b "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 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." 
  2. ^ 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." 
  3. ^ Ayn Rand (2009-12-18). "The Virtue of Selfishness: Individual Rights". The 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: Collectivized 'Rights" 
  4. ^ Kate Pickert (Mar. 09, 2009). "Undercover Animal-Rights Investigator". Time Magazine.,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?" 
  5. ^ Victoria Burnett (July 26, 2007). "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 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."" 
  6. ^ "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." 
  7. ^ 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 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." 
  8. ^ "Divine Right of Kings". BBC. 2007-10-11. 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." 
  9. ^ 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.

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Rights are entitlements or permissions, usually of a legal or moral nature. Rights are of vital importance in the fields of law and ethics, especially theories of justice and deontology.


Natural Rights

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.

  • People are usually surprised to discover that I hate the phrase "constitutional rights." I hate the phrase because it is terribly misleading. Most of the people who say it or hear it have the impression that the Constitution "grants" them their rights. Nothing could be further from the truth. Strictly speaking it is the Bill of Rights that enumerates our rights, but none of our founding documents bestow anything on you at all [...] The government can burn the Constitution and shred the Bill of Rights, but those actions wouldn't have the slightest effect on the rights you've always had.
  • The absolute rights of man, considered as a free agent, endowed with discernment to know good from evil, and with power of choosing those measures which appear to him to be most desirable, are usually summed up in one general appellation, and denominated the natural liberty of mankind. This natural liberty consists properly in a power of acting as one thinks fit, without any restraint or control, unless by the law of nature: being a right inherent in us by birth, and one of the gifts of God to man at his creation, when he endowed him with the faculty of freewill. But every man, when he enters into society, gives up a part of his natural liberty, as the price of so valuable a purchase; and, in consideration of receiving the advantages of mutual commerce, obliges himself to conform to those laws, which the community has thought proper to establish.
  • The fundamental source of all your errors, sophisms, and false reasonings, is a total ignorance of the natural rights of mankind. Were you once to become acquainted with these, you could never entertain a thought, that all men are not, by nature, entitled to a parity of privileges. You would be convinced, that natural liberty is a gift of the beneficent Creator, to the whole human race; and that civil liberty is founded in that; and cannot be wrested from any people, without the most manifest violation of justice. Civil liberty is only natural liberty, modified and secured by the sanctions of civil society. It is not a thing, in its own nature, precarious and dependent on human will and caprice; but it is conformable to the constitution of man, as well as necessary to the well-being of society.
  • The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records. They are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of the divinity itself; and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.
  • We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with inherent and inalienable Rights; that among these, are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness; that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
  • That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.
  • In recent years it has been suggested that the Second Amendment protects the "collective" right of states to maintain militias, while it does not protect the right of "the people" to keep and bear arms...The phrase "the people" meant the same thing in the Second Amendment as it did in the First, Fourth, Ninth and Tenth Amendments — that is, each and every free person.

    A select militia defined as only the privileged class entitled to keep and bear arms was considered an anathema to a free society, in the same way that Americans denounced select spokesmen approved by the government as the only class entitled to the freedom of the press.

    If anyone entertained this notion in the period during which the Constitution and Bill of Rights were debated and ratified, it remains one of the most closely guarded secrets of the 18th century, for no known writing surviving from the period between 1787 and 1791 states such a thesis.
    • Stephen P. Holbrook, That Every Man Be Armed: The Evolution of a Constitutional Right
  • You Own Your Own Life...
    To lose your Life is to lose your Future, to lose your Liberty is to lose your Present
    …and to lose the product of your Life and Liberty is to lose that portion of your Past that produced it
    A product of you Life and Liberty is your Property
    • Ken Schoolland, The Philosophy of Liberty[1]


  • 'That which has no existence cannot be destroyed — that which cannot be destroyed cannot require anything to preserve it from destruction. Natural rights is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense — nonsense upon stilts. But this rhetorical nonsense ends in the old strain of mischievous nonsense for immediately a list of these pretended natural rights is given, and those are so expressed as to present to view legal rights. And of these rights, whatever they are, there is not, it seems, any one of which any government can, upon any occasion whatever, abrogate the smallest particle.
  • One can conclude that certain essential, or fundamental, rights should exist in any just society. It does not follow that each of those essential rights is one that we as judges can enforce under the written Constitution. The Due Process Clause is not a guarantee of every right that should inhere in an ideal system. Many argue that a just society grants a right to engage in homosexual conduct. If that view is accepted, the Bowers decision in effect says the State of Georgia has the right to make a wrong decision--wrong in the sense that it violates some people's views of rights in a just society. We can extend that slightly to say that Georgia's right to be wrong in matters not specifically controlled by the Constitution is a necessary component of its own political processes. Its citizens have the political liberty to direct the governmental process to make decisions that might be wrong in the ideal sense, subject to correction in the ordinary political process.
  • In recent years it has been suggested that the Second Amendment protects the "collective" right of states to maintain militias, while it does not protect the right of "the people" to keep and bear arms...The phrase "the people" meant the same thing in the Second Amendment as it did in the First, Fourth, Ninth and Tenth Amendments — that is, each and every free person.

    A select militia defined as only the privileged class entitled to keep and bear arms was considered an anathema to a free society, in the same way that Americans denounced select spokesmen approved by the government as the only class entitled to the freedom of the press.

    If anyone entertained this notion in the period during which the Constitution and Bill of Rights were debated and ratified, it remains one of the most closely guarded secrets of the 18th century, for no known writing surviving from the period between 1787 and 1791 states such a thesis.
    • Stephen P. Holbrook, That Every Man Be Armed: The Evolution of a Constitutional Right

Civil Rights

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.

  • Since the narrower or wider community of the peoples of the earth has developed so far that a violation of rights in one place is felt throughout the world, the idea of a cosmopolitan right is not fantastical, high-flown or exaggerated notion. It is a complement to the unwritten code of the civil and international law, necessary for the public rights of mankind in general and thus for the realization of perpetual peace.
  • "Every segment of our population, and every individual, has a right to expect from his government a fair deal."
  • At the foundation of our civil liberties lies the principle that denies to government officials an exceptional position before the law and which subjects them to the same rules of conduct that are commands to the citizen.
  • Civil Rights opened the windows. When you open the windows, it does not mean that everybody will get through. We must create our own opportunities.
    • Mary Frances Berry[2]


  • It is a perversion of terms to say that a charter gives rights. It operates by a contrary effect — that of taking rights away. Rights are inherently in all the inhabitants; but charters, by annulling those rights, in the majority, leave the right, by exclusion, in the hands of a few. ... They...consequently are instruments of injustice. The fact therefore must be that the individuals themselves, each in his own personal and sovereign right, entered into a contract with each other to produce a government: and this is the only mode in which governments have a right to arise, and the only principle on which they have a right to exist.
  • Be assured that if this new provision [the 14th Amendment] be engrafted in the Constitution, it will, in time, change the entire structure and texture of our government, and sweep away all the guarantees of safety devised and provided by our patriotic Sires of the Revolution.
    • Senator Orville Browning, speech to US Senate, 1867

Human Rights

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.

  • To affirm that humans thrive in many different ways is not to deny that there are universal human values. Nor is it to reject the claim that there should be universal human rights. It is to deny that universal values can only be fully realized in a universal regime. Human rights can be respected in a variety of regimes, liberal and otherwise. Universal human rights are not an ideal constitution for a single regime throughout the world, but a set of minimum standards for peaceful coexistence among regimes that will always remain different.
    • John N. Gray, Two Faces of Liberalism (New Press, 2000, ISBN 0-745-62259-3. 168 pages), ch. 1: Liberal Toleration (p. 21).
  • Human rights are not just cultural or legal constructions, as fashionable western relativists are fond of claiming. They are universal values. To deny the benefits of the new regime of rights to other cultures is to patronise them in a way that is reminiscent of the colonial era. If the new regime on torture is good enough for the US, who can say that it is not good for everyone?
  • I know nothing of man's rights, or woman's rights; human rights are all that I recognise.


  • Qui jure suo utitur neminem tedit.
    • Translated: He who exercises his own right injures no one.
    • Legal maxim, reported in Henry Louis Mencken, A new dictionary of quotations on historical principles from ancient and modern sources (1946), p. 1044.
  • Rights are lost by disuse.
    • Legal maxim, reported in Henry Louis Mencken, A new dictionary of quotations on historical principles from ancient and modern sources (1946), p. 1044.
  • The law helps the vigilant, before those who sleep on their rights.
    • Legal maxim, reported in Oscar B. Parkinson, Outlines of Commercial Law: A Text Book for Schools and Colleges (1912), p. 234. Sometimes reported as "equity" rather than "the law".
  • Most people are far more concerned that they can control their own bodies than they are about petitioning Congress.
  • I am grateful that I have rights in the proverbial public square--but, as a practical matter, my most cherished rights are those that I possess in my bedroom and hospital room and death chamber.
  • Away with private wrongs! We'll not go forth
    To fight for these — but for the rights of men.
    • Sarah Josepha Hale, reported in Josiah Hotchkiss Gilbert, Dictionary of Burning Words of Brilliant Writers (1895), p. 524.
  • One of the grandest things in having rights is that, being your rights, you may give them up.
    • George MacDonald, reported in Josiah Hotchkiss Gilbert, Dictionary of Burning Words of Brilliant Writers (1895), p. 524.
  • In modern states, the citizen is politically impotent. A citizen, it is true, may complain, make suggestions, or cause disruptions, but in the ancient world these were privileges that belonged to any slave.
    • Mark Mirabello. Handbook for Rebels and Outlaws: Resisting Tyrants, Hangmen, and Priests (2009), p. 258.
  • To name a thing is easy: the difficulty is to discern it before its appearance. In giving expression to the last stage of an idea, — an idea which permeates all minds, which to-morrow will be proclaimed by another if I fail to announce it to-day, — I can claim no merit save that of priority of utterance. Do we eulogize the man who first perceives the dawn?

    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.

    • Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, What is Property? (1840), Ch. I: "Method Pursued in this Work. The Idea of a Revolution".
  • Rights are grand things, divine things, in this world of God; but the way in which we expound those rights, alas! seems to me to be the very incarnation of selfishness. I see nothing very noble in a man who is forever going about calling for his own rights. Alas! alas! for the man who feels nothing more grand in this wondrous, divine world than his own rights!

See also

External links

Wikipedia has an article about:
Wiktionary has an entry about rights.

Source material

Up to date as of January 22, 2010

From Wikisource


Rights by William Graham Sumner
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.[1] 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.


  1. Sumner, W. G., Folkways, §§15 ff.

Simple English

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.

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