What Are Rights?

It’s pretty much impossible these days to switch on the TV, radio or internet without hearing someone or other speaking of rights. “I have a right!”, “It’s my right…”, “My rights have been violated!” Typically, claims of rights take the form of a mere assertion, unsubstantiated by any evidence in particular. The right to free speech, the right to remain silent, the right to vote, the right to abstain from voting, the right to information, the right to privacy, the right to life, the right to die, the right to choose, the right to associate freely, the right to join a trade union, the right not to join a trade union, the right to health care, the right to education, the right to internet access; property rights, states’ rights, children’s rights, women’s rights, minority rights, gay rights, prisoners’ rights, animal rights. The panoply of rights is as breathtakingly vast as the language of rights in popular culture is confused, strident, and devoid of meaning.

Today, I will attempt to put some articulation into the language of rights: what are they, and who in our society can be deemed to hold rights; how do rights come into being, what is the basis of their validity, and to what extent do they merit our respect and observance. My reason for doing this is that many of the topics I plan to explore in LibertyGibbert over the next year are based on arguments that turn on some right or other, or are (superficially at least) couched in the language of rights. As these occur, I plan to be referring back extensively to this thread, so as to give some consistency to the Libertarian view of life. The context of this article will thus become clearer as we examine specific applications of its principles. None of what follows is particularly original, but I hope to distil here some of the extensive literature on the philosophical, moral and legal approaches to rights. I’ll also include plenty of links for those who wish to pursue the subject further (though a couple of them are abstracts of articles hidden behind a paywall).

A right is a claim

At its most basic, a right is a claim of one person or group on another: a claim to do, or let be, as the case may be, according to the definition of the right. My right to free speech means you must refrain from silencing me; my right to remain silent means you cannot compel me to speak. My right to welfare means the government (or more concisely, the taxpayer) must put food on my table if I am unable to do so. Some philosophers draw the distinction between rights sensu stricto (meaning my right implies you have some sort of positive duty towards me; these are often, and somewhat confusingly, termed claim rights) and liberty rights (which imply no explicit duty towards the right-holder). Liberty rights are usually deemed to exist anywhere a claim right to the contrary does not; since, for example, no-one has a right to stop you reading a certain book, you therefore have a right to do so. I personally see the two as equivalent for all practical purposes other than codification (claim rights must be codified in order to exist; the existence of liberty rights may be inferred); Christian theology, among others, draws no great moral distinction between sins of commission and sins of omission; thus, to abuse either sort of right would appear to denote an equal transgression.

There are any number of ways in which rights may be categorized: positive rights versus negative rights (for example, the right to free speech versus the right to silence), social rights (civil liberties) versus economic rights, and so on. To chase all these down here would be to dilute the meaning of the word right, and hopelessly confuse the issue. Today we are concerned with the nature and validity of rights, rather than any taxonomy. I will however note one distinction which has cropped up frequently in my own reading on the subject: rights asserted to be inherent in man by his nature (also called natural or inalienable rights), versus rights enacted by statute. Regarding this particular distinction, I would suggest a natural right is of little value until it is actually written into the statute books as inalienable, or else (if a liberty right) may be inferred by the absence of a contrary statute. The famous words of the American Declaration of Independence are of this sort:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

If they were not so written down, anyone could simply counter, “No, they’re not!”, and it would then be left to the courts to determine the existence or otherwise of the right: a dangerous road to take, as I will argue presently.

Rights imply responsibilities

Two responsibilities, in fact: for every right (even, strictly speaking, for liberty rights), there exists a corresponding responsibility of those around the right-holder to act, or refrain from acting, as the case may be; and the concomitant responsibility of the right-holder not to misuse the exercise of that right to the detriment of other individuals, or of society generally. I have a right to free speech; but to exercise that right loudly outside your front door at three o’clock in the morning is not only a misuse of that right, but it also violates one of your rights (except of course, if the exercise of my right is occasioned by the smoke I can see pouring out of your windows; in which case, the exercise of my right has now actually become the discharge of my responsibility corresponding to yet another of your rights).

This is not merely sophistry: I believe the ability to discharge the concomitant responsibility is a precondition to hold a right in the first place. Far too often, rights are spoken of in isolation, as if no responsibilities attach to them. Though these irresponsible rights are in truth little more than the empty rhetoric of politics, the nexus between rights and responsibilities is inescapable.

Here at LibertyGibbert, I have argued previously that over the past one hundred years, we as citizens of the Western democracies have gradually ceded more and more of our responsibilities to the state, as a matter of convenience; not realising that, in the process, we have also given away our rights. Look around you today, and you will see that, for all practical purposes, the state has more rights than the citizen. It is my contention that before we can meaningfully re-assert our rights, we must first reclaim, and then be seen to successfully discharge, the responsibilities attendant on them. In allowing the rise and rise of the Nanny State, we have become irresponsible—literally—and infantalized. It’s time we once again grew up.

Citizen to State: holders of rights

The original, strict definition of rights framed in the great charters of rights throughout Western civilization articulated rights as freedoms accorded to citizens, freemen, nobility, subjects or other broad categories of inhabitants of a kingdom or republic. In other words, rights were held by individual people. Typically, though, not all people: slaves or other underclasses were not regarded as having rights, being mere chattels and not fully-fledged humans. The point here is that institutions or groups were not deemed to hold any collective rights, beyond those invested in its members individually. The great charters of rights arose as a result of a determination to counter the only right hitherto recognized, the divine right of kings, and that of the church acting as a proxy for God.

As liberal democracy in the West gradually began morphing into social democracy, the definition of right began to weaken, and (as with so many other words) broaden far beyond its original, strict scope. Rights came to be viewed as being held, not only by individuals, but collectively by a group of individuals, be they a military unit, a village, an artisans’ guild, later (ominously) an incorporated shareholder company, or even a political party. From there, it was only a small step to accord rights to a state or government. With creeping collectivism, these state rights grew in number and scope. And while the corresponding responsibilities on everyone in society towards the right-holders also grew in tandem, the concomitant responsibilities of the state, corporation or party were dispersed, dissipated, diluted and, ultimately, dispensed with. The era of the irresponsible collective right-holder had arrived.

Today of course, anyone and anything can be (and is) invested with “rights”: animals, ecosystems, bureaucracies, even the earth as a whole. Invariably, the emphasis with these “rights” is on the corresponding responsibilities placed on those around the right-holder; when it comes to the issue of any concomitant responsibility attaching to that right, the only sound audible is that of crickets chirping.

Do such rights merit our respect and observance? I’ll give you a detailed opinion in the next thread in this series (and I look forward to your views below); for the moment, I would posit as a rule of thumb that, if a society is prepared to accept a body of codified rights, some of which are held by groups or other non-human entities, a calculation must be made as to whether the burden of corresponding responsibility exceeds the benefit to the right-holder. Is it (the distribution of burdens and benefits) fair to the greatest number of individuals, and is it of net benefit to society as a whole?

Now for some specific characteristics that rights must have for them to be meaningful, at least in a legal sense:

Rights are universal

If I assert a right for myself, then by extension I am asserting it for all other people in relevantly similar circumstances (a formulation I first heard nearly thirty years ago in a lecture given by Dr Nicholas Tonti-Filippini, a prominent Australian bio-ethicist and pro-life advocate). It is at best meaningless, and at worst inhuman, to assert a right for oneself without simultaneously asserting it for all others in the same position: rights are universal.

This fact ought to be borne in mind by those who are the loudest and most aggressive in asserting their own rights; it may give them pause for thought that they are actually also asserting the same rights for others, many of whom form the audience they are shouting at. It might even silence them completely, were they to also realise the concomitant responsibility they are thereby drawing down on themselves.

Rights must be enforceable

It is otiose to declare a right, even one deemed to be inherent, unless its observance can be backed up by force of law, and where necessary, physical compulsion. For example, it is hollow bluster for a parliament (or Congress, or other people’s legislative body) to declare rights of people not within its jurisdiction, unless it plans to send military force to ensure such rights are upheld. Similarly, it is pointless for a government to declare a right where there is a corresponding responsibility of the state it has no power to discharge: an economically bankrupt government can hardly declare basic welfare rights of citizens it cannot feed (though many do—this is the diplomatic language of the begging bowl).

Rights are not absolute

Rights are typically asserted, as if the assertion itself is enough to preclude all argument, that rights are not only unquestionable, but also absolute. Yet surely this is nonsense. How can rights be absolute? Rights conflict. My right to free speech conflicts with your right to peace and quiet (and many other of your rights); my right to stage demonstrations in public conflicts with your right to walk unhindered down the street. See that bearded guy on the subway platform who just left a suspicious-looking package under the seat? He has a right not to be arbitrarily detained. But surely the hundreds of other passengers around him have rights, too?

In the next thread on rights I’ll include a recent case study on conflicting rights which is currently the subject of a High Court action in my own country. Further down the track, we’ll be examining in detail specific issues of conflicting rights: the obvious one being the abortion debate. In the meantime, it’s obvious that when there are conflicting claims, there will also be winners and losers. How can such dilemmas be resolved?

Resolving conflicting rights

To resolve conflicting rights, a test may be applied by measuring each right against an over-riding, universal concern and respect for all people. That is, when the benefits of the competing rights and the burdens of their corresponding responsibilities are juxtaposed, which benefits are more important to the basic welfare and survival of the claimants? The many approaches I have seen in the literature appear to boil down to this; for example, this book is a worthwhile read in case studies of the rights of minorities living under colonial rule, while this one describes a methodology for medical clinicians faced with ethical dilemmas involving patients.

As an alternative, I came across this blogger who has the thought-provoking idea that all rights can be interpreted as property rights, and granted all property has but one owner, rights viewed this way can never conflict. While I can see a utilitarian merit in this approach, it necessarily involves a) exalting property rights above all others, and b) in some ethical dilemmas, reducing human beings to chattels; the thread comments below it highlight this problem.

Should rights exist at all?

Are there any rights which cannot be adequately enshrined within the body of Common Law? In the twenty-first century, is there really any need for a separate Charter, or Bill of Rights?

That’s a question for another day. Specifically, in about a week’s time (I hope). In the next thread on rights, I will continue exploring the theme of rights, looking at the codification of rights, their relationship with parliamentary law, and the benefits and dangers inherent in setting a charter or bill of rights, interpreted by an unelected judiciary, against a body of Common Law, enacted by citizen representatives.

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17 Responses to What Are Rights?

  1. Tucci78 says:

    Readers might be interested in the fact that libertarian speculative fiction author L. Neil Smith had written in his first major novel The Probability Broach that all individual rights are, in fact, property rights.

    In The Probability Broach, Smith had one of his characters say:

    “…all rights are property rights, beginning with absolute ownership of your own life…”

    In addition, it should be observed that there is no such thing as “conflicting rights.” The negative rights – to life, to liberty, to property – consist of nothing more than a “Keep Your F–king Hands Off!” social constraint to prevent the aggressive molestation of one’s fellow human beings. This is necessary to induce the individual human being to come into society out of “the state of nature” and participate in the division-of-labor economy which is the purpose of society in the first place.

    Ever read the first section of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense?

    SOME writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness POSITIVELY by uniting our affections, the latter NEGATIVELY by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher.

    Positive rights (under contract, for example, the right to payment for services voluntarily engaged and rendered) can never be said to be “conflicting.” It’s simply that there can be disagreement about which party in such a relationship has the right to what. Once the issue is shaken out (with scrupulous respect for each participant’s negative rights as the basis for all deliberations), the supposition of “conflicting” condition is demonstrated to have been fallacious.

    G’day Tucci – I’ll be quoting Paine extensively in the next thread on rights, as per above – Oz

  2. Amanda says:

    In addition to reading Oz’s excellent article above, may I suggest that interested persons have a look at Natural Right And History by Leo Strauss. It’s a difficult, dense work — like all his works — but it is also a major achievement, as they say.

  3. Dr. Dave says:

    Well, Ozboy, you’re off to a great start. Great topic. Great article and (up until now) great comments. As a redneck American I view rights a little differently. Our Constitution defined them rather nicely yet that hasn’t prevented the term “right” from being misapplied or abused. In the US Constitution very specific rights and responsibilities are granted to the federal government. Everything else is relegated to the states or the people. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. But today we have “rights” where none before existed. We have also seen an erosion of rights.

    In the USA, in the traditional sense, “rights” are God given and not granted by government. Our Founders quickly corrected the flaws in our Constitution with the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights essentially enumerates what the government cannot do. It assures us such liberties as the right to free speech and to keep and bear arms. In our system (the way it should work anyway), the government is not in the position of granting ANY rights. The rights defined in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights do not impinge on the rights of any other citizen.

    Today we hear a non-stop call for various and sundry “rights”. We hear about the “right” for collective bargaining by unions, the “right” to abortion constructed from a judicially contrived “right” to privacy, the “right” of every citizen to healthcare, etc. One Congressional member, the esteemed Jesse Jackson, Jr. has even called for the “right” to a good job, a home, food, a laptop computer and an iPad! This, of course, will solve unemployment. Go figure.

    Because it is so utterly politically incorrect I love to defend the rights of smokers. Hell, I don’t care if you smoke! It’s your choice, not mine. I may not approve, but it’s no more my business than telling you to lose weight and keep your teenage daughter from dressing “slutty”. If governments define something as a right; food, shelter, clothing, healthcare, etc. they are, in effect, depriving others of their rights by mandating their goods and services be provided at no cost. Sorry liberals, this is beyond the purview of government. Ideally the state has virtually no rights.

    Sadly, in the USA we have strayed from that ideal.

    G’day, Dave, as always, great to see you here at LibertyGibbert. I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but I’ll be dealing with the U.S. Bill of Rights (an exceptional case) in an upcoming thread. I would say here though, that to regard so-called inalienable rights as coming from God is to embark on a very slippery slope – Oz

  4. Dr. Dave says:


    Let’s just leave it at “endowed by their creator”. I’ll have to drag out my copy of our Constitution (which, ironically, you may know better than me) but I don’t think they referred to “God” per se in the Declaration, Constitution or the Bill of Rights. The point being that there are inalienable rights (Declaration) that are not granted by any government. The central idea is that true “rights” are not granted by government. A “right” is a free right of the individual that cannot be taken away by government nor does it impinge in the rights of others. To declare something like, say, healthcare or internet access a “right” impinges on the rights of the ISP or the healthcare worker.

  5. Kitler says:

    Rights are an artificial construct of any particular society you may happen to live in and these can vary wildly in nature. Rights in reality do not per se exist we are mere animals smart ones I grant you but still animals we live in a Universe that that does not care for our existence one jot. All is still a struggle for food, mates and progeny to continue our genetic legacy in truth nothing beyond that matters.
    Of course that is a really cold view of existence but a million years from now no one will know of Mozart, Einstein, Churchill, Jesus if we as a species still exist. The USA, Australia, UK likewise so nothing you do will ever be remembered for more than a few thousand years at best.
    While we may grant ourselves as a people certain things we call rights such as free speech these really are luxury’s we can grant only because our level of civilization and technology means we have a lower imperative to seek out food and mates are easier to find. If our civilization collapsed you find your notion of rights to be meaningless as the strong would dominate the weak.
    So my argument is rights are fairy dust and easily lost.

  6. Amanda says:

    Kitler: Re your last line: all the more reason to protect them, and protect the notion of rights.

    Because, if someone puts a gun to your head, you instinctively feel that they have no right to kill you but you DO have the right to live. Who is asserting that right and who is upholding it at that moment? It’s your claim against his will, and no one else is intervening. But that’s why rights exist in society. As soon as someone else turns up — hopefully brawny policemen with guns of their own — your ‘right’ to life becomes as it were activated, because now there is someone to champion it. (As Oz talked about in his article.)

    In other words, rights may not exist ‘in the state of nature’ but they should exist, and do exist, in the civilized state, in civilized regimes. But rights are not alone in that: romance doesn’t exist in the state of nature, either — nor do high ideals of love, justice, virtuous action, and so forth. We need civilization in order to make rights something more than mythical, just as we need civilization in general in order to be true human beings.

  7. Amanda says:

    I would add, as well, that we all believe in justice — or more particularly, injustice. We think there are just and unjust actions. But justice is abstract; and besides that, where does it come from? (Is it even real?) Rights help us to grapple with justice on a practical level — to sort of it wrest it from the abstract realm — by naming specific areas or objects of justice and attaching codes and arguments to those. It’s much easier to argue for, or about, rights than it is to argue about justice. So in a way, rights are what we create or at least define in order to make justice real, or at least a real possibility.

  8. Amanda says:

    Just to clarify: That line above should read: ‘to sort of wrest it from …’

  9. farmerbraun says:

    This comes back to the definition of a right as being in essence a claim; completely notional and unenforceable without might. Rights without might are useless, as anyone confronting a hungry grizzly will attest.
    We may fondly believe that we do not live in a jungle, but the reality is the law of the jungle prevails beneath the very thin and transparent veneer that we call civilisation.

  10. Kitler says:

    Amanda with rights being a product of civilization along with obligations to respect those rights they are still ephemeral and will not last forever. We cherish the right to free speech but this right can be taken from us and in case people haven’t noticed this right is slowly being eroded by the right and the left but mainly from the left. If we want rights then we must fight to maintain the ones we respect. Since most people are just clever monkeys means that some bar steward is going to want to be the alpha male or female and once there they will do what it takes to stay in that position and if it means removing your rights they will do so.
    Rather depressing really there are so few humans on the planet but plenty of talking monkeys. Ultimately everything is pointless in a Godless Universe I suppose we must just muddle along and admire the view from time to time and drink some fine wine.

  11. Amanda says:

    Kitler: Thank heavens then that we are living, from any sane point of view, in a Golden Age!

  12. Kitler says:

    If you can have rights can you also have lefts or rites even?

    I look around me and I see plenty of wrongs – Oz

  13. msher says:


    The U.S. Bill of Rights may be the perfect embodiment of libertarianism. I also think Madison belongs up there with Jefferson as one of history’s greatest thinkers.


    Speaking of great thinkers, how can libertarianism be analyzed without Adam Smith and the Wealth of Nations. I think he, as much as anyone, established democracy and libertarianism. He is usually overlooked, yet he is the one who really established the idea of a society made up of individuals each pursuing their own selfish interests and in so doing, creating the collective good.

  14. msher says:


    Is there a comment of mine still awaiting moderation? I wrote one about rights coming from man as opposed to rights coming from God, but I don’t see it. In fact, it never showed up, not even with a note that it was awaiting moderation. On the other hand, the comment I just wrote appeared right away. So, this is somewhat confusing. I hope the longer post isn’t lost.

    Everything I’ve seen from you, I’ve posted…

    Just a note to everyone on that point: if you’ve gone to the trouble of composing a long post, make sure it’s saved somewhere (e.g., Word or Notepad) before committing it to the blog. I’m not sure if it’s a browser issue or a WordPress issue but it’s happened before to others, including me – Oz

  15. farmerbraun says:

    Earlier I wrote this: This comes back to the definition of a right as being in essence a claim; completely notional and unenforceable without might. Rights without might are useless,…..

    I think now we can see that a right is no more than a “deliverable” in completion of a contract.
    The contract is between me and the “might” of the law. I pay my taxes in order to receive the protection of those entrusted with law and order.
    I can claim a right to, for example, the “free and undisturbed possession” of my land, but that right is upheld by the forces of law and order, and in the absence of that force my right is non-existent.

  16. Ozboy says:

    G’day everyone,

    Sorry I’ve taken some time to approve comments the last few days; I’ve been on the road and just returned home today. Comments over the next week should get through a bit quicker.

    Also, it’s nice to see my home state of Tasmania getting some good publicity in the DT.

  17. Pingback: Gaia Rights | Be Responsible – Be Free!

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