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 reciprocated among the principals associated with that claim. The most basic 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 than that, 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.
On that basis, additional structures (of social interaction) can be erected.
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 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 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.
(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:
- civil rights
- religious rights
- rights of opinion
- real rights (from the Latin word "res", thing), which include:
- property rights
- rights of use
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  .
Other uses of the "right" concept in philosophy
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 how this relationship works, 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. It also cannot be entirely dissociated from land usage rights.
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 pharoah, 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".
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 External link: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 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).
"Right" has an 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. The point is that 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, we first had to have a few thousand years of developing the concepts which underpin these rights. The concept of rights doesn't 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.
- Animal rights
- Bill of rights
- Human rights
- Individual rights
- Freedom of religion
- Freedom of speech
- Freedom of the press
- Social contract
- Claim (patent)
- "Right" in Wiktionary
- Human Rights Watch
- Amnesty International
- Teacher's Rights