- For the direction right, see left and right or starboard. For the political trend or ideology, see Right wing.
- The following article discusses the notion of rights in matters of philosophy and Law.
At its most fundamental, a right is a claim, on other persons, that is acknowledged and perhaps reciprocated among the principals associated with that claim. One concept of rights is a principle of interaction between people which amounts to the simplest version of the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you). In other words, it is a mutually beneficial agreement between two or more people; each of them agrees to behave in a certain way towards the others so that they will behave in the same way towards him/her. Other concepts of rights do not necessarily involve this reciprocal supportiveness. Since ancient times there has existed a belief that parents are owed, as a right, the respect of their children. Similarly, the marriage ceremony is believed by many to confer rights upon the two parties in exchange for thus bonding their lives to each other.
The idea that rights are mutual and equal is relatively modern. In ancient times rights were often more one-sided, the rights of a father to be respected by his son didn't necessarily indicate a duty upon the father to return that respect. Even today, when we are so familiar with the concept of equal rights and mutual respect in society, the rights of children remain in dispute.
To a modern egalitarian, an entity (person or group) can make any sort of claim on other persons, but those claims remain simple assertions until the other persons acknowledge that claim as binding upon them. At that point, the claim becomes a privilege (a one-sided acknowledged claim). If all parties (including the originating claimant) also agree to reciprocate acknowledgement of such a claim, it becomes applicable to all, that is, applicable to everyone in the same sense and at the same time, and thus a right. However, these egalitarian interpretations of jurisprudence are not universally held.
In most views of law, it is not generally considered necessary that a right should be understood by the holder of that right, thus rights may be agreed on behalf of another, such as children's rights or the rights of people declared mentally incompetant to understand their rights. However, rights must be understood by somebody in order to have legal existence, so the understanding of rights is a social prerequisite for the existence of rights. Therefore, educational opportunities within society have a close bearing upon the people's ability to erect adequate rights structures.
In modern English and European systems of jurisprudence and law, a right is the legal or moral entitlement to do or refrain from doing something or to obtain or refrain from obtaining an action, thing or recognition in civil society. Compare with privilege.
Generally speaking (within the English and European systems) a right corresponds with a complementary obligation that others have on the same object or realm; for instance if someone has a right on a thing, simultaneously another party or parties have an obligation to do something (or to abstain from doing something) in order to respect that right or to give concrete execution to that right. Property rights provide a good example: society recognizes that individuals have title to particular property as defined by the transaction by which they acquired the property granting the individual free use and possession of the property. In many cases, especially regarding ideological and similar rights, the obligation depends on the legal system in its entirety, or on the state, or on the generical universality of other subjects submitted to the law.
The right can therefore be a faculty of doing something, of omitting or refusing to do something or of claiming something. Some interpretations express a typical form of right in the faculty of using something, and this is more often related to the right of property. The faculty (in all the above mentioned senses) can be originated by a (generical or specific) law, or by a private contract (which is sometimes exactly defined as a specific law between or among volunteer parties).
Other interpretations consider the right as a sort of freedom of something or as the object of justice. One of the definitions of justice is in fact the obligation that the legal system has toward the individual or toward the collectivity to grant respect or execution to his/her/its right, ordinarily with no need of explicit claim.
Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics (book five), claims that there is a large difference between written (generalized) justice and what is actually right for the (specific) individual.
(10-3) "But what obscures the matter is that though what is equitable is just, it is not identical with, but a correction of, that which is just according to law."
(10-4) "The reason of this is that every law is laid down in general terms, while there are matters about which it is impossible to speak correctly in general terms. Where, then, it is necessary to speak in general terms, but impossible to do so correctly, the legislator lays down that which holds good for the majority of cases, being quite aware that it does not hold good for all."
"The law, indeed, is none the less correctly laid down because of this defect; for the defect lies not in the law, nor in the lawgiver, but in the nature of the subject-matter, being necessarily involved in the very conditions of human action."
Rights can be divided into individual rights, that are held by citizens as individuals (or corporations) recognised by the legal system, and collective rights, held by an ensemble of citizens or a subgroup of citizens who have a certain characteristic in common. In some cases there can be an amount of tension between individual and collective rights. In other cases, the view of collective and individual rights held by one group can come into sharp and bitter conflict with the view of rights held by another group. For instance compare Manifest destiny with Trail of Tears.
With reference to the object of the right, a common general distinction is among:
- intellectual rights, which include:
- real rights (from the Latin word "res", thing), which include:
See also: human rights, positive rights, negative rights, exclusive rights.
Particular systems can (or could in the past) include special rights like:
fief rights, which included:
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
In 1948 the United Nations made the above declaration, which was an over-arching set of standards by which Governments, organisations and individuals would measure their behaviour towards each other.
This Declaration introduced the notion in the public realm that rights had a moral dimension, independent of and overriding (where relevant) the legislature or government which granted specific legal rights. The notion was not new, e. g. Thomas Paine had argued in this way in his book The Rights of Man.
Other general Declarations have followed, notably the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989 .
History of the concept of 'rights'
The word "right" comes from the Indo-European root word "reg-", which gives us a host of words like regent, rajah, rex, rig, reich and rule. All these words carry a similar meaning, referring to what is considered proper and correct (the second syllable in cor-rect is another example). There is a relationship between the words we use and the concepts which they permit our minds to manipulate, and there is a whole branch of philosophy to examine the workings of the relationship between sign systems and their signified meaning, namely Semiology.
We speak, in history, of the "divine right of kings", which expressed the concept that certain powers and privileges could be decreed by God to be "right" and "proper" for a king. The process by which this concept of king's rights came to be transferred to the rights of the people is long and convoluted. It certainly has a lot to do with both religious and political influences upon the common people, preaching again and again from one platform or another to rally support for what is "right" and "proper" to be done. Since ancient times religion has reinforced peoples' instinctive belief that there are some things owed to a person by right. Examples are the rights of a husband, the rights of a wife, -of a son, -of a daughter, of the firstborn, etc. and the land usage rights believed generated by fact of occupation.
With religion on one side and the state on the other telling the people what their "rightful" position was in the scheme of things, it was inevitable that common people would eventually come to demand their own rights. When the Jews came out of Egypt, they were escaping from a system where one man, the pharaoh, was "god"—or, in other words, had all the rights. After they got out of Egypt, the Jews adopted their own system of law based on written commandments to which even their kings were subject. Eventually, the Jewish people would produce a tiny sect—called Christianity—which followed the idea of a man called Jesus of Nazareth. This tiny sect grew rapidly, spreading to Greece and Rome, and incorporating Greek republican ideas together into Talmudic concepts. Over the centuries, it became the world's largest religion, and one of the foundations of what we call "Western culture".
When the concept of divinity shifted from a human personification to an abstract god somewhere above us all, it put the power of absolute judgement of right and wrong above the political state.
In the 5th century BC, while the Jews were in captivity in Persia, the Buddha (in northern India) taught a system by which each person could reclaim reality from illusion. This state beyond illusion or self-deception is claimed to be the way existence should be, the way which is right and proper, an ideal state. In Buddhist philosophy, the Noble Eightfold Path is translated into English using the word "right" at each of the eight components of the way. In all these, the word "right" is a translation of the word sammā (Pāli; Sanskrit: Samyańc or Samyak), which denotes something along the lines of "same", "single", "one", "whole", "completion", "togetherness", or "coherence", and which can also carry the sense of "perfect" or "ideal".
The converts to Buddhism in its early centuries were drawn from India, Sri Lanka, Tibet, China, Japan etc. to the east and from western lands too, with missionaries travelling, according to the Edicts of Ashoka as far west as Egypt, Macedonia, Cyrene, Epirus and Syria. About two centuries later (in the time of the Roman Empire), there is known to have thrived in Egypt a colony of monks called the Therapeutae, whose description suggests they were Buddhists or very Buddhist influenced. The conversion of Ashoka was a significant moment in the spread of world changing ideas, as was that of Constantine. While there may be a dispute about whether Constantine actually converted to Christianity or merely had pro-Christian policies, it makes little difference in terms of his place in the spread of ideas of what is the right way to treat others and be treated by them.
Converts both east and west who especially found hope and a better life in Buddhism were those from the lower classes such as the Indian "untouchable" class, lowest in the Hindu caste system. The concept of an ideal way where all were at one with the highest principle of the universe was subversive to the caste system and liberating in a political sense as well as spiritual. The monastic life raises poverty to the status of spiritual wealth and thus makes the low high, the high low and the rich the furthest from grace. This empowers the common masses to make their own agreements of right and wrong based on the Golden Rule.
Both of these traditions, the one spreading from Palestine and the other, with an earlier start, spreading from northern India, carried semiotic codes enabling human minds to differently manipulate the conceptualised questions of "what is right and proper?", "how should things be?", "what should we put up with?", etc.
The Qur'an is the sacred book of Islam. The influence of teaching based on the Qur'an began to spread around the world in the 7th century. Contained within the Qur'an are references to the concept of rights. From the English translation:
"The Cow [2.228]: And the divorced women should keep themselves in waiting for three courses; and it is not lawful for them that they should conceal what Allah has created in their wombs, if they believe in Allah and the last day; and their husbands have a better right to take them back in the meanwhile if they wish for reconciliation; and they have rights similar to those against them in a just manner, and the men are a degree above them, and Allah is Mighty, Wise."
"The Women [4.1]: O people! be careful of (your duty to) your Lord, Who created you from a single being and created its mate of the same (kind) and spread from these two, many men and women; and be careful of (your duty to) Allah, by Whom you demand one of another (your rights), and (to) the ties of relationship; surely Allah ever watches over you."
"The Women [4.33]: And to every one We have appointed heirs of what parents and near relatives leave; and as to those with whom your rights hands have ratified agreements, give them their portion; surely Allah is a witness over all things."
"The Dinner Table [5.116]: And when Allah will say: O Isa son of Marium! did you say to men, Take me and my mother for two gods besides Allah he will say: Glory be to Thee, it did not befit me that I should say what I had no right to (say); if I had said it, Thou wouldst indeed have known it; Thou knowest what is in my mind, and I do not know what is in Thy mind, surely Thou art the great Knower of the unseen things."
"The Immunity [9.17]: The idolaters have no right to visit the mosques of Allah while bearing witness to unbelief against themselves, these it is whose doings are null, and in the fire shall they abide."
Islamic beliefs spread widely after the lifetime of Muhammad (c. 570–632). Islam ruled most of Spain for several centuries and had profound influence on the philosophy of Europe. In Al-Andalus Moslems, Jews and Christians shared knowledge and philosophy in an atmosphere of tolerance and mutual respect.
The concept of, or perhaps the meme for, human rights had really taken root in England by 1381, the year of the Peasants' Revolt. It would be another 308 years to the first Bill of Rights (1689).
Rights portrayed in drama and media
"Right" should be better understood in relation to its opposite: "wrong". All of the semiotic concepts our minds are able to form about rights inevitably contain references at some level to "wrongs". We construct mythologies about knights "righting wrongs" and the wrongs are symbolised by dragons, ogres or even windmills, etc. These kind of folk symbols were dramatized in Mummers Plays and other forms of street performance and were an entertainment to the peasant folk of those centuries leading up to the Peasants' Revolt and after. Anything could be put into these plays, demonizing whoever was currently out of favor: The Jews, the Saracens, The Pope, Guy Fawkes, etc. They were in some ways similar to the present day and the mass media images beamed around the world. These mummeries and representations of larger-than-life moral plays are part of the process by which people become informed about what rights it is possible to have (and to lose).
So, in other words, in order to get the human mind to a state where we were able to feel strongly about our human rights and draw up universal declarations which make our rights mutual and equal, we first had to have a few thousand years of developing the concepts which underpin this interpretations rights. The concept of equal rights does not stand alone. It requires a cultural base of understanding. The developing process involves folk tales and mythologies, propaganda and rhetoric, introducing people of all classes gradually to the necessary intellectual structures.