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Rights aren't rights if someone can take them away. They're privileges. That's all we've ever had in this country, is a bill of temporary privileges. And if you read the news even badly, you know that every year the list gets shorter and shorter.
—George Carlin, It's Bad for Ya (2008)

Rights are freedoms, abilities, prerogatives, or privileges regarding what a person, entity or group is permitted to do, legally or morally.

General sense of the term[edit]

The term rights is generally identified as a positive good for humans which entails permissions or freedoms or powers which may or may not be used in the future. And rights are generally seen as fundamental or basic parts of the structure of a society, and the concept of rights undergird much of our thinking about human civilization including its laws and morality.[1] During much of the past three hundred years, the term has been loosely defined to mean something at the core of what's good for humanity in a positive way. The sense of the term is interpreted differently by different thinkers to be consistent with their political agendas. Since there are widely diverging political viewpoints which vary considerably from society to society and within societies, the term has been pulled apart to the extent that it is practically meaningless as a philosophical term, and serious thinkers avoid using it without at first attempting to specify exactly what they mean by the term right.

Consider different meanings. Here are a few usages:

Rights are always matched by obligations. If someone has a right, then there is an obligation for some other person(s) or group(s) to respect it. If someone has a right to live, everyone has an obligation not to kill them. If someone has a right to eat, then someone has an obligation to make food available. Some thinkers split rights into positive and negative rights based on what obligations they impose on others. Negative rights are rights where others are obliged to refrain from certain actions. Positive rights are those where others are obligated to perform certain actions.

Natural rights are universal permissions thought to come from Nature or God. According to this view, they exist across all societies and can't be taken away. If derived from Nature (in the sense of thinkers such as John Locke, then rights are possessed by all humans by virtue of being human. Rationalist philosophers such as Spinoza identified right with a power or capability to do something and didn't think that the concept made much sense without this aspect. If rights are derived from a deity such as God (in the sense of thinkers such as Aquinas), then rights are a gift from a divine being for the benefit of humans, and therefore taking away or denying a divine gift can be considered to be evil.

Legal rights refer to the basic building blocks of a society's laws such as a citizen's right to vote. Further, the concept can describe specific privileges within an economic system; for example, the term claim right suggests that another person or organization has a power to have somebody else give something or provide a service; an example of a claim right is a deed to property which says, in effect, that person X owns property Y. A so-called liberty right, in contrast, is permission for a person to do something in which there are no obligations on others; for example, the liberty right of the right to free speech means that a person can speak freely without being restrained or punished, and others don't have to do anything or provide any service such as a microphone to speak into or a platform to stand on.

Generally, most senses of the term right refer to freedoms possessed by individuals, often in relation to other individuals or to the State. Rationalist thinkers such as Ayn Rand argued that only individuals have rights according to her philosophy which she 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. In this conception, individuals aren't important as individuals but only as members of a larger entity known as the group. By analogy, individual bees aren't important in and of themselves, but the collective group of bees known as the hive is seen as a separate and complete organism in and of itself; as an example of the importance of the hive (group) over the bee (individual), individual bees will sacrifice themselves to protect the hive. Some suggest that among humans, it's possible for rights to shift from an individual orientation to a group orientation, and back again in a particular circumstance, such as a way to thwart violence.[4] Examples of when group rights are paramount include wartime (soldiers in a squad) or trade unions.

Rights laws and movements[edit]

These are some of the most commonly encountered — and often disputed — themes of rights within politics, philosophy and law.

See also[edit]


  1. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, …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..., Stanford University, 2007, [1]
  2. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 2007-07-09, [2],2009-12-21,
  3. Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness: Individual Rights, …Individual rights are not subject to a public vote … the political function of rights is precisely to protect minorities from oppression by majorities…, The Ayn Rand Lexicon, 2009-12-18, [url = http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/individual_rights.html], accessed 2009-12-18
  4. Thomas Wright Sulcer, Common Sense II:How to prevent the three types of terrorism,Booksurge/Google, 2009, [3]