Rights “structure the form of governments, the content of laws, and the shape of morality as it is currently perceived” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2016), making them a fundamental element of the study of politics. Rights can be enshrined in countries’ constitutions, or in legislation such as guaranteeing benefits or access to educational and health services. However, because they take the form of “you have the right to X” rather than “you must not do Y”, they less clear cut than laws of prohibition.
By definition, rights are not only an individual’s authority to act, but are universally possessed by similar individuals (Tansey, 2004). The U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) is the modern development of earlier theories of ‘natural rights’, and represents a moral claim to equal political treatment for all of humanity.
Rights can be categorised by common attributes, to aid our understanding of what the rights are alluding to:
- Which group is alleged to have the right: children, women, workers, peoples, states, and even animals.
- The actions, states or objects to which the asserted right pertains: the right to freedom of expression or speech; to pass judgment; privacy; against self-incrimination (for example, Miranda rights); property rights; bodily rights.
- The origins of the right: law; ethics or morality; customary rights derived from local convention.
- Whether the right holder’s action can affect their entitlement to such rights: the right to life is inalienable in countries where capital punishment has been abolished, but the right to liberty can be withdrawn.
The perception of rights within public consciousness is important to how they can be asserted, and this can change as a result of political lobbying, current affairs (for example, news stories in mainstream media), amongst other pressures. The aforementioned rights groups are not mutually exclusive, and an individual’s perceived group memberships may change. As many rights are moral or cultural, they are subject to change.
Politics plays an important role in developing and recognising the above rights; which behaviours and benefits constitute “rights” is subject to ongoing discussion, debate and legislation. Governmental regime changes can lead to shifts in rights: for example, the concept of equality is often bound up with the meaning of “rights” (The Human Rights Act 1998, 2016; Roemer, 2005). Social conservatives often identify equality with equality of opportunity, such as allowing all university students access to student loans at the same rate. In contrast, social democrats and liberals may strive instead for equity, or equality of outcome: in this case, students from less-wealthy backgrounds may have rights to bursaries or higher loan repayment thresholds.
The exploration of rights is a continuous process, just as politics as a practice and discipline is constantly in flux. Rights are inseparable from discussions of legislation, the judicial system, and public discussions of morality; therefore, they are a central concept in the study of politics.
John E. Roemer (December 14, 2005). “Roemer on equality of opportunity”. New Economist.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (June 8, 2016) Stanford University. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rights/
Tansey, S. and Jackson, N., (2014) Politics: the Basics, London, Routledge.
The Human Rights Act 1998 (June 6, 2016) Equality and Human Rights https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/en/human-rights/human-rights-act
Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). G.A. res. 217A (III), U.N. Doc A/810 at 7.