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 Ayesha Speaking

Current speaker First, let me say that I think we are all agreed that we are talking about individual rights. We are not concerned with the rights of groups except in so far as they may be derived from the rights of individuals.

Second, let me try to lay out a short, simple definition of an individual right.Not all philosophers agree about just how rights should be defined, but I think this definition will serve our purposes. Here it is:

An individual A has a right to do or to have X if and only if others have a duty not to prevent A from doing or having X. In some cases we can also say that an individual has a right to have X if and only if someone or some institution has a duty to provide A with X.
Here are a few more useful terms:
  • Moral rights are established by moral arguments and are not created by law.
  • Legal rights or positive rights are created by law. In the United States, legal rights include both constitutional and statutory rights. Of course, we might establish a legal right to do X because we believe that people have a moral right to do X (e.g., to get married).
  • Natural rights are not created by law. They exist outside or prior to political society. For example, some philosophers have said that in the "state of nature" people have a natural right to defend themselves or to acquire property. In that case, we need to ask what happens to natural rights after a political society is formed. Do people continue to have the same right to defend themselves or to acquire property? Natural rights can also be thought of as general rights that we have against all other people in contrast to special rights that arise in specific situations such as the making of a contract.
  • Human rights are rights that all people possess because of some feature or features of human beings (e.g., because they are intelligent, sentient beings or because they have interests to defend).
  • Absolute rights can never be justifiably abridged or overridden.
  • Inalienable rights can never be lost, taken away, or alienated.
  • Prima Facie rights are rights that we acknowledge under normal circumstances, but they can be overridden in some cases. We might, for example, acknowledge that a property owner has the right to keep people off his land but also hold that this right can be overridden in cases of life and death. In this case, the property right is a prima facie right. Prima facie rights may be balanced against each other or with other moral concerns.

I think the most difficult questions are these:

  • What is the foundation or justification for individual rights?
  • What rights, if any, do people have?
  • What sorts of limitations are there on our rights?

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