Rights and Privileges
In our discussion of Hobbes it was noted that he lived at a time when there was a radical shift
in political attitudes. Those that ruled no longer saw it as their duty to obey the sovereign or
External right to rule over and it was your duty to obey even though they owned nothing
Hobbes gave reasons as to why to obey (what to gain) while giving up rights in exchange
Hobbes lived through the English civil war (1642-51) when the parliamentarians overthrew
and killed the king, ousting his supporters from power.
The parliamentarians insisted that the King had no divine right to determine taxation, to
rule the army and to be the head of the church (imposing religious orthodoxy)
People being ruled over felt that they must have say and be accounted for (this is what
Religion could be individualized (the thought)
Hobbes, recall, argued that the sovereign must obtain this right by agreement with each of
his/her “subjects”. Therefore, a certain equality was assumed between ruler and ruled
When you give up self rule you must get something back in exchange.
A contract with the sovereign and a relationship
The citizen, more exactly, must consent to the ruler’s authority. Without her consent the
ruler’s authority is not legitimate. Accordingly, the citizen has natural rights that no one can
take away from her (are inalienable-
No longer subject but citizen now
With this shift in political culture the concept of individual rights and freedoms has come to
prevail. But what is a right exactly? -
Define a RIGHT as followed: An entitlement (not) to perform certain actions or an
entitlement that others (not perform certain actions
One might have the right to- life, vote, strike, operate a forklift, equal treatment before
law, feel proud of what one has done, carry a weapon, pronounce couples married, be
left alone, etc.
There are two basic types of rights according to how we justify them- moral and legal
A legal right is a right that is derived from the laws of society ex- the right to carry a
concealed weapon in some societies
Law- legislation provides it to you
A moral right is a right that is derived from moral reason, ex- the right not to be tortured That is not to say there are often moral reasons for a legal right. Still, sometimes we have the
legal right to do something wrong (immoral).
For example- Someone is free to race in front of old woman to get ahead of her in the
line for the supermarket checkout. Nonetheless, this might easily be judge as the wrong
thing to do.
Some rights concern having claims over others-
A has a claim right over B when B has a duty to A to the action, ex- a child has the right
to the provision of shelter by his or her parents/guardians
Some rights concern having power over others-
A has a power right over B when A can impose a duty on B to the action, ex- a judge
has the power to sentence a person in a trial
A privilege concerns someone being at liberty to do something that is, she is under no duty
not to do something.
Example- you have the privilege to pick up a coin you find on the street, you are under
no obligation not to pick it up (you can get it)
Legal rights are protected by law, but privileges are not. And moral rights are enforceable in
the sense that they impose an obligation on someone else, ex- to keep a promise
For example- if someone tries to stop you from exercising your right to vote, you can
expect the law to ensure you can vote. But if someone tries to stop you from picking up a
coin on the street, you have no equivalent recourse to the law.
On occasion we have to give up some rights. Ex- when we consent to have surgery
performed on us we give up the right not to be “touched” by others. Consent gives the
surgeon the privilege to touch the person in a significant way.
Also rights can be characterised as either positive and negative
A right is positive when its holder is entitled the provision of some good or service.
Example- Canadian citizens have the right to health care. The state must provide for
this service. The state’s positive action is required.
A right is negative when its holder is entitled to non interference
Example- You have the right not to be prevented from listening to music- I cannot
interfere with your musical enjoyment
To have a right is empowering. For example, your having the right of free speech permits
you to express things that others might find offensive. As a legal right the state is obligated to
protect you from those who may try to silence you.
Such as freedom of expression may offend others ex- hate
But does a right trump every consideration whatsoever? Do you have the right, for example,
to say whatever you wish no matter what the consequences are?