Saturday, January 3, 2009

What are "rights"?

One might inquire as to what exactly we mean by "rights" in a political sense. It is tricky, but I think some progress can be made if we recognize that people today use the word to refer to two distinct notions: "negative rights", and "positive rights". The former concept refers to limits on what can be done to you, while the latter pertains to what must be given to you. It seems to me that the political recognition of "negative rights" is consistent, while the implementation of "positive rights" is not. The reason is that no one has to provide "negative rights", others simply have to let you live your life as you choose (as long as your choice is not to violate their negative rights). Positive rights, by contrast, require a provider on the other end, and this may involve violating their "negative rights", since it puts a burden on them, and requires that they are not strictly free to pursue their lives as they see fit.
Examples of negative rights: you have a right to not be forcibly attacked, injured, or killed; to be enslaved; to be forced by the state to give your property of goods to others (unless of course you are defaulting on an agreed upon trade), or to be forced to associate with designated other groups of people.
Now, I want to emphasize that voluntarily giving property or money to others in need is in most cases a great virtue, and should be done. However, the state should not require it.
Examples of positive rights: the right to a job, the right to a "living wage", the right to be allowed in a private club. These all require that someone else, who is not bothering you, must provide some good or service to you. I do not see how it can be consistently argued that such rights must be vouchsafed in a free society.
I recognize that this post seems perhaps overly simplistic, and not thoroughly fleshed out, but I thought it useful to heuristically introduce the concepts into my blog.

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