Concept of Rights

Rights are the fundamental entitlements and freedoms that individuals possess, often protected by laws or societal norms, ensuring their autonomy and well-being. These include civil, political, economic, and social rights.


Rights are the fundamental building blocks of a just and equitable society. They are more than just legal concepts; they are the bedrock upon which individual liberty, personal development, and happiness are built. Rights are the entitlements or justified claims that individuals possess, and they play a pivotal role in shaping both the individual and society at large. In this article, we will delve into the meanings and theories surrounding rights, shedding light on their profound significance.

What are Rights?

Rights, in essence, represent the claims of individuals for their self-development and self-realization. These claims are not abstract; they are recognized and upheld by society itself. Without a societal framework, rights lose their meaning and relevance. It’s important to note that rights are not absolute; they can be subject to restrictions when it serves the broader interests of society.

Rights are universal, meant to be extended to all members of society. However, they come with a caveat – the exercise of rights is conditional upon the performance of duties and obligations. In other words, rights go hand in hand with responsibilities, creating a harmonious social fabric.

These claims of individuals are not arbitrary. They must be rooted in rational considerations, possess universal acceptability, and promote the common good. This intrinsic connection between rights and ethical considerations makes them an essential element of a just and balanced society.

Definitions of Rights

Various scholars and thinkers have defined rights in unique ways, offering distinct perspectives on their nature and role in society:

Harold Laski describes rights as “conditions of social life without which one cannot seek to be their best self,” emphasizing their role in personal development and self-realization.

T.H. Green views rights as “power claimed and recognized as contributory to the common good,” highlighting their positive impact on the greater society.

Dr. Beniprasad emphasizes that rights are “social conditions necessary for the development of personality,” underlining their role in shaping individual identity and growth.

Ronald Dworkin sees rights as “trumps,” signifying their ability to override other considerations or interests.

Edmund Burke offers a more skeptical view, considering natural rights as “metaphysical abstractions,” suggesting their intangible nature.

Theories of Rights

The concept of rights has evolved over time, giving rise to various theories that provide different perspectives on their nature and origins. Let’s explore some of these theories:

Theory of Natural Rights

This theory, popular in the 17th and 18th centuries, views rights as inherent to human nature, not granted by the state. Natural rights limit the scope of state action and are based on intuition and reason. This theory can be divided into contractual and teleological bases, with thinkers like John Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau offering varying perspectives.

Hobbes presents a more pessimistic view of natural rights, emphasizing the need for surrendering these rights in civil society.

Rousseau, on the other hand, glorifies natural rights and suggests their diminishing relevance in civil society, which sparks an ongoing debate.

Critics point out that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to define the term natural. D.G. Ritchie in his book “Natural Rights: A Criticism of Some Political and Ethical Conceptions”: describes the variety of senses in which the term has been used. There is no commonly agreed list of natural rights.

Legal rights, also referred to as civil rights or statutory rights, are rights established and safeguarded by the state through its legal framework. These rights are rooted in the customs, laws, and statutes of society, and they are upheld and enforced by the state, which possesses the authority to use coercive measures against those who disregard them. Citizenship often serves as the foundation for the acquisition of legal rights.

Prominent proponents of the legal rights theory, including Salmond, Austin, Holland, Herbert L.A Hart, Pollack, and Jeremy Bentham, have contributed significantly to the development and understanding of these rights.

Legal rights can be categorized into three primary divisions:

  • Civil Rights: These encompass the protection of life and property, the right to education, freedom of speech and expression, and the right to privacy, among others.
  • Political Rights: These include the right to vote, the right to hold government office, the right to criticize the government, and the right to stand as a candidate.
  • Economic Rights: These rights cover the right to work, the right to receive adequate wages, and the right to reasonable working hours, among other economic considerations.

Theory of Moral Rights

Austin has made a clear distinction between Legal Rights and Moral Rights. He posits that Legal Rights are established and upheld by the institutions of the state, whereas Moral Rights are conventional rights that find their basis in the prevailing opinions of the majority.

Moral Rights are closely linked to an individual’s personal convictions and are contingent upon the ethical standards of the community. They are grounded in principles of morality, justice, and conscience and do not receive any guarantee from legal authorities. Importantly, transgressions of Moral Rights do not lead to legal repercussions.

For example, in Indian society, there exists an expectation of children showing respect to their parents. However, this respect is not imposed by any legal mandate but is rather a part of a child’s moral duty and the moral right of parents to receive respect.

According to T.H.Green, ‘the origin of rights is in the sense of right and wrong’. For him, ‘human consciousness postulates liberty, liberty involves rights’.

Utilitarian Theory of Rights

In 1791, Bentham authored ‘Anarchical Fallacies,’ a work in which he strongly critiqued the concept of Natural Rights. In Bentham’s own words, he described Natural Rights as “nonsense… nonsense elevated on stilts of sticks.” He further wrote, “Rights are creatures of law, properly called”. Bentham went so far as to label the idea of natural rights as a form of inflammatory and extremist language, referring to it as “terrorist language.”

Instead Natural Rights Theory, Bentham propagated for The Utilitarian Theory of Rights which posits that rights should be granted and protected based on their utility in maximizing overall happiness or well-being. In this perspective, rights are not inherent but rather a means to achieve societal benefit. Utilitarianism evaluates the consequences of actions and policies, emphasizing the greatest good for the greatest number. This theory may justify limiting or sacrificing individual rights if it leads to a net increase in overall happiness, making rights contingent on their practical utility in promoting the common welfare

Functional Theory of Rights (Laski): 

According to Laski, rights and duties are interdependent.  For him, man possesses rights, not by virtue of his individual purpose, but as a constituent of common good. Rights are essentially derived from a man’s duty towards society. So therefore to secure rights, man must contribute towards common good.

Claim right theory 

Norman Barry is famously remembered for laying the foundation of a new term called claim rights. He explains claim right as in the usual sense of the word, it is understood as a type of claim. Claim rights entitled their holder to limit the liberty of another person.

Theory of Human Rights

Human rights are a special category of rights that should be possessed by all individuals regardless of their background, nationality, or beliefs. These rights are grounded in international moral and legal norms designed to protect individuals from societal, political, and legal abuses. Human rights encompass various categories, including security rights, liberty rights, political rights, due process rights, equality rights, and welfare rights.

The concept of human rights gained prominence in the aftermath of the atrocities committed by Hitler against the Jewish population. It challenged the notion of state sovereignty, suggesting that if a state violated the rights of its citizens, the international community had a responsibility to safeguard those rights. This gave rise to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 10th December, 1948.

However, this human rights framework encountered resistance from communist countries, which viewed it as a Western ploy to interfere in domestic affairs. The rights outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were rooted in the liberal philosophy associated with Western values, leading many developing nations to label it as cultural imperialism and advocate for ASEAN values instead.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights can be categorized into various groups, including Security Rights, Liberty Rights, Political Rights, Due Process Rights, Equality Rights, and Welfare Rights. 

Additionally, The International Bill of Rights includes three documents: 

  • Universal Declaration of Human Rights 
  • Covenants on Civil & Political Rights (1966) 
  • Covenants of Social and Educational Rights (1966)

Three Generations of Human Rights

Human rights can be grouped into three generations, as proposed by Czech jurist Karel Vasak in 1979:

  • 1st Generation Rights: Civil and Political Rights
  • 2nd Generation Rights: Social and Economic Rights
  • 3rd Generation Rights: Cultural, Collective, and Environmental Rights

The theory of human rights is closely connected to Immanuel Kant’s theory of human dignity. It is rooted in the notion of human dignity. In essence, human rights are delineated as a collection of rights inherent to all individuals simply by virtue of their humanity. Amartya Sen believes that the concept of human rights is somewhat unclear, characterizing human rights as moral safeguards.

Diverse Perspectives on Rights

Rights are a complex and multifaceted concept that can be viewed from various angles. Different perspectives on rights provide valuable insights into the role of individuals, communities, and cultures in shaping the understanding and implementation of rights. In this section, we will delve into the communitarian and multicultural perspectives on rights, shedding light on their unique insights and implications for society.

The Communitarian Perspective

Communitarians offer a distinct viewpoint on rights, emphasizing the importance of the individual’s cultural and community context. They argue that the individual is not an abstract entity but is deeply embedded in their cultural and social environment. From this standpoint:

  • Community Identity: Communitarians advocate for a shift in focus from individual identity to community or group identity. They argue that understanding and protecting the rights of individuals should consider the broader cultural and communal context in which they exist.
  • Politics of Common Good: Communitarians challenge the primacy of liberal political rights and propose a shift towards the “politics of common good.” They contend that rights should be framed in a way that promotes the well-being and shared values of the community.
  • Michael Walzer’s Insight: According to Michael Walzer, “the only way to identify the requirements of rights and justice is to see how each particular community understands the value of social goods”. 

The Multicultural Perspective

Multiculturalists offer a perspective that underscores the interconnectedness of rights and culture. They argue that rights cannot be separated from the cultural fabric of society. From this standpoint:

  • Cultural Context: Multiculturalists stress that real equality goes beyond mere uniform treatment and should also consider the social and cultural context in which such treatment occurs. It’s not enough for individuals to be treated the same; their cultural identities and backgrounds should also be acknowledged.
  • Minority Rights: Multiculturalists insist that any comprehensive theory of rights must take into account the rights of minority groups. This may involve recognizing group-differentiated rights, such as territorial autonomy, land claims, language rights, and veto powers, to address the disadvantages faced by minority cultures.
  • Status of Minorities: They raise critical questions about the status of minority cultures within majority-dominated frameworks and nation-states. Multiculturalists seek to ensure that minority cultures are not marginalized or assimilated into the dominant culture.
  • Inter-Civilizational Dialogue: Bhikhu Parekh suggests the need for a dialogue between civilizations to establish a consensus around fundamental values governing human rights. Human dignity is identified as a potential common value that could guide such a dialogue.
  • Group Rights Advocates: Scholars like Will Kymlicka and Joseph Raz advocate for group rights, recognizing that people are culturally embedded, and their membership in cultural groups gives meaning to their lives. They argue that group rights should be protected and respected.


The concept of rights is a cornerstone of enlightened citizenship and a key element in shaping just and equitable societies. Different perspectives, such as the communitarian and multicultural viewpoints, provide rich insights into how rights can be understood and applied in diverse cultural and communal contexts.

In this context, the role of the state becomes paramount, as it is tasked with safeguarding the rights of individuals, including diverse minority groups, to promote their best possible development. By recognizing the significance of culture, community, and group identity, we can ensure that rights are not just abstract principles but practical tools for fostering social harmony and human dignity.

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