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Rights are legal, social, or ethical principles of freedom or entitlement; that is, rights are the fundamental normative rules about what is allowed of people or owed to people, according to some legal system, social convention, or ethical theory. Rights are of essential importance in such disciplines as law and ethics, especially theories of justice and deontology.
Rights are often considered fundamental to civilization, being regarded as established pillars of society and culture, and the history of social conflicts can be found in the history of each right and its development. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, "rights structure the form of governments, the content of laws, and the shape of morality as it is currently perceived".
There is considerable disagreement about what is meant precisely by the term rights. It has been used by different groups and thinkers for different purposes, with different and sometimes opposing definitions, and the precise definition of this principle, beyond having something to do with normative rules of some sort or another, is controversial.
One way to get an idea of the multiple understandings and senses of the term is to consider different ways it is used. Many diverse things are claimed as rights:
There are likewise diverse possible ways to categorize rights, such as:
There has been considerable debate about what this term means within the academic community, particularly within fields such as philosophy, law, deontology, logic, political science, and religion.
Natural rights are rights which are "natural" in the sense of "not artificial, not man-made", as in rights deriving from deontic logic, from human nature, or from the edicts of a god. They are universal; that is, they apply to all people, and do not derive from the laws of any specific society. They exist necessarily, inhere in every individual, and can't be taken away. For example, it has been argued that humans have a natural right to life. These are sometimes called moral rights or inalienable rights.
Legal rights, in contrast, are based on a society's customs, laws, statutes or actions by legislatures. An example of a legal right is the right to vote of citizens. Citizenship, itself, is often considered as the basis for having legal rights, and has been defined as the "right to have rights". Legal rights are sometimes called civil rights or statutory rights and are culturally and politically relative since they depend on a specific societal context to have meaning.
- A claim right is a right which entails that another person has a duty to the right-holder. Somebody else must do or refrain from doing something to or for the claim holder, such as perform a service or supply a product for him or her; that is, he or she has a claim to that service or product (another term is thing in action). In logic, this idea can be expressed as: "Person A has a claim that person B do something if and only if B has a duty to A to do that something." Every claim-right entails that some other duty-bearer must do some duty for the claim to be satisfied. This duty can be to act or to refrain from acting. For example, many jurisdictions recognize broad claim rights to things like "life, liberty, and property"; these rights impose an obligation upon others not to assault or restrain a person, or use their property, without the claim-holder's permission. Likewise, in jurisdictions where social welfare services are provided, citizens have legal claim rights to be provided with those services.
- A liberty right or privilege, in contrast, is simply a freedom or permission for the right-holder to do something, and there are no obligations on other parties to do or not do anything. This can be expressed in logic as: "Person A has a privilege to do something if and only if A has no duty not to do that something." For example, if a person has a legal liberty right to free speech, that merely means that it is not legally forbidden for them to speak freely: it does not mean that anyone has to help enable their speech, or to listen to their speech; or even, per se, refrain from stopping them from speaking, though other rights, such as the claim right to be free from assault, may severely limit what others can do to stop them.
Positive rights are permissions to do things, or entitlements to be done unto. One example of a positive right is the purported "right to welfare."
Negative rights are permissions not to do things, or entitlements to be left alone. Often the distinction is invoked by libertarians who think of a negative right as an entitlement to non-interference such as a right against being assaulted.
Individual rights are rights held by individual people regardless of their group membership or lack thereof.
Group rights have been argued to exist when a group is seen as more than a mere composite or assembly of separate individuals but an entity in its own right. In other words, it's possible to see a group as a distinct being in and of itself; it's akin to an enlarged individual, a corporate body, which has a distinct will and power of action and can be thought of as having rights. For example, a platoon of soldiers in combat can be thought of as a distinct group, since individual members are willing to risk their lives for the survival of the group, and therefore the group can be conceived as having a "right" which is superior to that of any individual member; for example, a soldier who disobeys an officer can be punished, perhaps even killed, for a breach of obedience. But there is another sense of group rights in which people who are members of a group can be thought of as having specific individual rights because of their membership in a group. In this sense, the set of rights which individuals-as-group-members have is expanded because of their membership in a group. For example, workers who are members of a group such as a labor union can be thought of as having expanded individual rights because of their membership in the labor union, such as the rights to specific working conditions or wages. As expected, there is sometimes considerable disagreement about what exactly is meant by the term "group" as well as by the term "group rights."
- The Constitution of Medina (622 AD; Arabia) instituted a number of rights for the Muslim, Jewish and pagan communities of Medina, establishing freedom of worship for non-Muslims the security of women, a system for granting protection to individuals, and a judicial system.
- The Magna Carta (1215; England) required the King of England to renounce certain rights and respect certain legal procedures, and to accept that the will of the king could be bound by law, after King John promised his barons he would follow the "law of the land". While Magna Carta was originally a set of rules that the king had to follow, and mainly protected the property of aristocratic landowners, today the Magna Carta is seen as the basis of certain rights for ordinary people, such as the right of due process.
- The Declaration of Arbroath (1320; Scotland) established the right of the people to choose a head of state (see Popular sovereignty).
- The Henrician Articles (1573; Poland-Lithuania) or King Henry's Articles were a permanent contract that stated the fundamental principles of governance and constitutional law in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, including the rights of the nobility to elect the king, to meet in parliament whose approval was required to levy taxes and declare war or peace, to religious liberty and the right to rebel in case the king transgressed against the laws of the republic or the rights of the nobility.
- The Bill of Rights (1689; England) declared that Englishmen, as embodied by Parliament, possess certain civil and political rights; the Claim of Right (1689; Scotland) was similar but distinct.
- The Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776) by George Mason declared the inherent natural rights and separation of powers.
United States Declaration of Independence (1776) succinctly defined the rights of man as including, but not limited to, "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" which later influenced "liberté, égalité, fraternité" (liberty, equality, fraternity) in France The phrase can also be found in Chapter III, Article 13 of the 1947 Constitution of Japan, and in President Ho Chi Minh's 1945 declaration of independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. An alternative phrase "life, liberty and property", is found in the Declaration of Colonial Rights, a resolution of the First Continental Congress. Also, Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads, "Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person."
- The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789; France), one of the fundamental documents of the French Revolution, defined a set of individual rights and collective rights of the people.
- The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (1785; United States) Written by Thomas Jefferson in 1779, the document asserted the right of man to form a personal relationship with God without interference by the state.
- The United States Bill of Rights (1789–1791; United States), the first ten amendments of the United States Constitution specified rights of individuals in which government could not interfere, including the rights of free assembly, freedom of religion, trial by jury, and the right to keep and bear arms for self-defense.
- The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) is an overarching set of standards by which governments, organisations and individuals would measure their behaviour towards each other. The preamble declares that the "...recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world..."
- The European Convention on Human Rights (1950; Europe) was adopted under the auspices of the Council of Europe to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms.
- The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), a follow-up to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, concerns civil and political rights.
- The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966), another follow-up to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, concerns economic, social and cultural rights.
- The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982; Canada) was created to protect the rights of Canadian citizens from actions and policies of all levels of government.
- The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (2000) is one of the most recent proposed legal instruments concerning human rights.
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