Human rights

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S105-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2006
Retrieved April 21, 2024, from

3. Which rights?

Which rights are human rights? There is no uncontroversial way of answering that question. Many more rights are now claimed as human rights than were previously claimed as natural rights. Past theorists sometimes identified natural rights as those rights that individuals would possess in the imagined pre-political condition that they described as the ‘state of nature’. But many alleged human rights relate to the make-up and functioning of government, or to goods and services that it can be expected to deliver, and so make sense only in the context of an organized society. Human rights are often divided into generations, according to the order in which they appeared in rights thinking. First generation human rights include rights to basic freedoms, such as freedom of expression, association and religion (see Freedom and liberty). They also include rights protecting individuals from the abuse of power, such as rights not to be subjected to arbitrary arrest, to cruel and unusual punishment, to torture, and to unfair trial. These first generation rights are often said to be negative rights in that they impose only negative duties – duties of restraint – upon others. That is largely but not wholly true. The right to personal security, for example, imposes upon governments a positive duty of protection rather than a duty of mere abstention.

Socio-economic rights are identified as second generation human rights because, with some exceptions, they appeared in human rights documents only after the Second World War. These rights relate, roughly speaking, to the goods and services that we associate with the welfare state, such as a minimum adequate standard of living, social security, healthcare, and education. They are ‘positive’ rights in that they entail positive duties, usually for governments or societies at large, to supply the relevant goods and services. The right to education, for example, is conceived not merely as the negative right not to be prevented from receiving education but as the positive right to be provided with education. Are these second generation rights properly regarded as human rights? Many commentators (e.g. Cranston 1973) suggest not because, in so far as people possess socio-economic rights, they do so as citizens of particular societies rather than as members of the human race. Certainly, when these rights were incorporated in the UDHR in 1948, they were thought of primarily as rights that each society should provide for its own members. Thus the members of rich societies could claim a right to more and better social security, health care, education, etc., than the members of poor societies. That, in turn, rendered nonsensical the notion that these were human rights: how could universal human rights entitle some people to more and better goods and services than others? However, in recent years, partly as a consequence of globalization, rights to basic material goods, especially the right not to live in poverty, have been taken much more seriously as global rights that entail genuinely global responsibilities (e.g. Pogge 2002).

A third generation of human rights is sometimes identified, distinguished by the collective nature of the goods they encompass. These include, inter alia, rights to economic and social development, to peace, and to a healthy environment. Whether goods of this sort can be the objects of human rights, or of rights of any sort, is controversial. Not every goal that humanity should pursue lends itself to the logic of rights.

Citing this article:
Jones, Peter. Which rights?. Human rights, 2006, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S105-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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