What Are Human Rights? (27): What Does It Mean To Have Rights?

When thinking about what it means to have a right it’s sometimes useful to replace the word “right” with another and similar word. Let’s review a few of those words and see how far they get us. You’ll notice immediately that those words only describe part of what we usually understand by the word “right”. Hence, they’ll allow us to clarify only part of the meaning of the phrase “to have a right”. Perhaps taken together they’ll provide an overall definition. (Some of the definitions are based on the famous work by Hohfeld).

Rights as privileges

Formally this can be stated as follows:

A has a privilege to do X if A doesn’t have a duty not to do X.
A has a privilege not to do Y if A doesn’t have a duty to do Y.

For example, in the U.S. I have the privilege to speak my mind, because I don’t have a duty to keep silent. Or, I have the privilege not to vote for our Dear Leader because I don’t have a duty to do so.

Rights as permissions

Similarly, one could say that rights are permissions. That sounds somewhat weaker than “privilege” but formally, this way of talking about rights has the same structure as “rights as privileges”:

A has a permission to do X if A doesn’t have a duty not to do X etc.

It’s about what a rights bearer is at liberty to do, not what he has to do or shouldn’t do. Hence, rights as liberties is again another way of saying the same thing. The fact that I have the privilege, the permission or the freedom to speak my mind doesn’t imply that I must speak my mind.

Rights as claims

A more relational understanding of rights focuses on the claims we may have on others. Having a right then means having a claim on someone.

A has a claim that B does X if B has a duty to A to do X.
A has a claim that B doesn’t do Y if B has a duty to A not to do Y.

For example, I have a claim that my employer pays me a fair wage because my employer has a duty to do that (see article 23 of the UDHR). I also have a claim that he doesn’t impose slave-like or dangerous working conditions on me because he has a duty not to do that.

Usually, and at least in the case of human rights, I have such claims vis-à-vis every other human being.

Rights as immunities

This is similar to rights as claims but it’s a bit stronger.

A has an immunity if B doesn’t have the legal, moral or political ability or power to do X to A.

For example, I have immunity against self-incrimination because a judge does not have the power to force me to testify against myself.

Rights as limits

Again, similar if not identical to immunities:

A has a right to X if B doesn’t have the legal, moral or political ability or power to interfere with A doing X.

For example, I have to right to practice my religion because no one else is allowed to interfere with me practicing my religion.

Rights as provisions

Having a right can mean more than the ability to limit interference it can also mean being entitled to the provision of some goods or services.

A has a right to X if B has the legal, moral or political duty to provide A with X.

For example, I have the right to an amount of food that guarantees my decent survival. The state, among others, has a duty to provide this food if I can’t acquire it independently. But also so-called non-interference rights or negative rights fall under this heading: I have a right to be protected by Courts and the police force – to be provided with protection – if people impose a religion on me, harm my bodily integrity etc.

Rights as properties

You could say that all rights are in essence property rights. We have a right to have rights; our rights are our property. In the words of John Stuart Mill:

When we call anything a person’s right, we mean that he has a valid claim on society to protect him in the possession of it. … To have a right, then, is, I conceive, to have something which society ought to defend me in the possession of. (source)


A has a right to X if society has a duty to protect A’s possession of X.

Again, very similar to the formulation of rights as provisions. For example, I have a right to free speech if I can call on judges and Courts to assist me in my struggle against those who want to take this right away from me.

Rights as sovereignty

Very similar to the notions of rights as claims, immunities, limits and properties is the notion of rights as sovereignty. My right to freedom of opinion or my right to property make me a small scale sovereign over my mind or my possessions, in the sense that others aren’t allowed to interfere, invade, dispossess or modify. All these notions of rights focus on the rights bearer’s ability to control whether others must or must not act in certain ways.

Rights as interests

Conversely, rights as interests focus on what rights do to the rights bearer. Rights serve to further the rights bearer’s interests. People have rights because rights make them better off. What these rights imply for others is of secondary importance. Formally:

A has a right to X if X makes A better off.

Rights as abilities

Another way to focus on the rights bearer rather than the duty bearer is to view rights as abilities. That allows us to see that rights as liberties, privileges or permissions only describe part of what we understand by rights. Indeed, I have a right if I have the freedom, privilege or permission to act in a certain way. And rights as claims, immunities and limits protect me against others who would interfere with my freedom, privilege or permission to act in a certain way. And yet I can be free to do X because 1) I’m free from a duty not to do X and 2) I’m free from the interference of others, but at the same time I may be unable to do X. For example, I may have the permission and freedom to practice whatever religion I choose, and others don’t interfere, but I lack the education or mental capacities to choose and practice a religion. Rights as abilities would then provide me with the necessary education, rather than only the freedom, privilege, permission or limits on interference.

Rights as trumps

Following Ronald Dworkin, we can view rights as trumps. Rights are norms with a special force. They provide particularly weighty reasons to do or not to do something, reasons that are weighty enough to override other reasons or concerns. Rights give reasons to treat people in certain ways or permit them to act in certain ways, even if certain other goals or objectives would be better served by violating their rights. Within the system of rights, it’s possible to give some rights a higher trump value and hence a higher priority than others, perhaps depending on the circumstances (meaning that one right only trumps another when certain conditions are met, and not systematically).


A has a right to X if X overrides all other concerns.

Only if we combine all these different definitions of rights can we perhaps have an overall understanding of them.


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