Positive Rights vs. Negative Rights – Learn Liberty
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Positive Rights vs. Negative Rights – Learn Liberty

September 21, 2019


One reason there’s a lot of confusion about
rights from both liberals and conservatives is that there are different sorts of rights.
Besides the distinction between legal and moral rights, we also need to distinguish
the different sorts of claims the assertion of a right makes. Philosophers generally use
the expressions negative rights and positive rights to express these distinctions. Now
there’s nothing evaluative about these terms. It’s not negative in a bad way. These are
precise terms that philosophers use to make an important distinction. So let’s see if
we can explore it. Consider this claim: I have the right to go
to the store and get a lottery ticket. Let’s begin with what this doesn’t mean. First
of all, it doesn’t mean that I have an obligation to buy a lottery ticket. It’s up to me.
No one should be forcing me to buy one, but also no one should be forcing me not to buy
one. Second of all it doesn’t mean that the store
clerk has any obligation to give me one. I’ll have to pay for it, which is shorthand for
making a trade. This works whether we’re talking about lottery
tickets, milk, potato chips, coffee, beef. My right to get these things is not an obligation
to get them, and neither is it a warrant to be given them. My right to get these things
means that no one ought to stop me from making trades through which I can acquire them. That’s
a little different from, say, when you get arrested and are informed that you have the
right to an attorney. You know how they say it from TV. If you cannot afford an attorney,
one will be provided for you. The store is under no obligation to provide me with a steak
if I can’t afford one, but the folks who arrested me are obliged to provide me with
an attorney if I cannot afford one. So these are different kinds of rights. One way to get clear on this distinction is
to think about the relationship between rights and duties. If Smith has a right then Jones
has a duty. Understanding what different kinds of duties Jones might have is one way to understand
what kinds of rights Smith might have. We’ll call negative rights the kind of rights which
impose on others a negative duty, a duty not to do anything, a duty of noninterference.
If I have a right of this sort all you have to do to respect that right is refrain from
blocking me. Negative rights are sometimes called liberties. Now we’ll call positive rights the kind
of rights which impose on others a positive duty, a duty to provide or act in a certain
way. If I have a right of this sort, you respect it by complying. Positive rights are also
sometimes called entitlements. So my right to a lottery ticket or a steak is a negative
right. No one can properly interfere with my efforts to acquire these through trade.
Freedom of speech is another example of a negative right. I cannot be arrested for speaking
out. The right of criminal suspects to an attorney is a positive right. One will be
provided. One interesting feature of negative rights is that they don’t conflict and we
can all respect everyone else’s liberties all the time., wWe simply have to refrain
from using force to make people do our bidding. Positive rights can conflict and in a couple
of ways. One way they can conflict is scarcity. If there are 10 public defenders and 100 people
get arrested, they can’t all have their right to an attorney satisfied equally. This
sort of conflict can sometimes help us understand which claims are legitimate. Your property
rights give you exclusive use of a resource so others can’t claim a right to vacation
in your yard, at least not without your permission. The other source of conflict raises a more
troubling issue. Since positive rights create duties on others to act or provide, doesn’t
that represent a violation of their negative rights, their liberty? It depends. Some positive
rights are created by a contractual relationship. Since I’m a member of Triple AAA, I have
a positive right to towing services if my car breaks down. Nonmembers have a negative
right to seek towing services, but I am actually entitled to receive them. That doesn’t violate
anyone’s negative rights, though, because the relationship is entirely consensual and
defined by a contract. If I claimed I had a positive right to a steak, someone would
have an obligation to give me one, not as a trade but as a nonconsensual service. That
would violate their liberty, making them involuntarily subservient to me. This suggests that if we’re
free and equal by nature, any positive rights would have to be grounded in consensual arrangements. Unfortunately, for a lot of so called positive
rights this just isn’t the case.

Only registered users can comment.

  1. Did he just argue against the right to an attorney?
    What about my right to freedom, is it always trumped by the governments right to arrest me?

  2. The right to healthcare and the right to education are based on consensual arrangements and contracts — specifically, the social contract. This is an awesome euphemism for the belief that as soon as you are born, your government owns you. Since you are given the right to vote, you can influence that very government. It's a great system!

  3. This video is awesome. Unfortunately he just successfully stripped away the entire moral basis for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Whoops! Shhhh, don't tell anyone ….

  4. Even now, the rule of law previous generations have instituted to protect liberty can only remind new generations of repeating injuries that threaten it. People like our Founding Fathers knew this as they learn from history and look ahead of their time. Therefore, they're not utterly utopian. What they can do now is take opening offices and educate their peers. This is how ideas persevere.

  5. Many reasonable principles from this presentation are often undermined by frustratingly common practices: incomplete disclosure and bluffing before or during pretrial negotiation, all manner of deceptive (coercive) tactics at any and every stage, disproportionate provisions of expertise, counterproductive propaganda, contrary policies and procedures, sometimes leaving little chance to fairly resolve or, later, even appeal certain negligent & willful abuses, permanently undermining justice.

  6. Soliciting waivers on enforcement from regulators before certain planned interactions can be a rather nasty way to screw a disadvantaged (unsophisticated) party. Virtually any privilege or immunity promotes the eventual development of habitually indulged exploitation. Statutes limiting time or thresholds, disproportional info access, manipulable penalties and rewards, etc… (Hollywood psycho example – Deathproof: Cornered, Stuntman Bob pleaded cried & made empty promises, too.);

  7. No one is forcing you to save the child, and you are not obligated to help the child. There's no conflict.

    That being said, I obviously think that you SHOULD help the child.

  8. Yes, there are differences between moral rules and what is "aesthetically pleasing". It's a virtuous thing to help the child, but it's not an obligation. However, you are responsible for the death of the child, and you bear all the responsibility that entails.

    There are ethical differences between an act and its omission. I could either kill someone or not kill someone. Obviously these have different moral bearings.

  9. Saving the child is aesthetically preferable (forget I said pleasing, it was a mis-type) in the same why that being on time for your friend's wedding and being sober when you get there are aesthetically preferable. It's not a matter of personal taste, it just a general statement of what is preferable even though you aren't obligated to do it. It's still the "right thing to do."

  10. If you refused to help the child then I'd think of you as a horrible person, but I wouldn't say that you were morally required to help the child. That would make you a slave of the child, if only for an instant. Any time you impose an obligation to help someone, you are making the helper a kind of slave.

    If we had to help every one we could, then we would all be obligated to keep just enough money to survive and donate the rest. That hardly seems moral to me.

  11. I think you're missing my point. My whole point is that you cannot be obligated to do anything. To be obligated is a violation of YOUR rights. The child has a right to life, but he does not have a right to impose upon you an obligation to supply that right.

    Now it IS virtuous to save the child (notice that I'm not using the word moral). It is also vicious (adjective of vice. Weird I know.) to let the child die. Virtue and morality overlap sometimes, but are not the same thing.

  12. All rights are basically property rights. I can do with my body and property what I choose as long as it doesn't interfere with the property of someone else.

    The right to life means that no one can actively deprive you of your life. It doesn't mean that other people are obligated to keep you alive.

  13. "I fail to see how not being obligated to do anything can guarantee any property rights, or any rights at all."

    I don't see where you're coming from here. I have ownership (exclusive use and possession) over my body and certain goods. We call that property rights. You have no obligation to make sure that no one steals from me, but that doesn't make my property rights invalid. I still have the right to exclusive use over my property (including my body).

  14. My right to my property is irrelevant as to whether people recognize it or protect it. It's not derived from persons protecting my property, it's derived from my labor. I use my labor to create value. This value belongs to me. I trade my value to an employer for money. The money is now mine. I spend that money on a bike. That bike is now mine. Even if someone steals the bike and no one prevents that, it's still my bike.

  15. Listen, I'd really love to debate this, truly I would. But it's 12:40 in the morning where I live and I have to pack tomorrow, er… I guess it's technically today now… Moving in 3 days. Agree to disagree?

  16. If I cut down some trees and build myself a house, I have just labored. That doesn't mean I work for somebody else. You choose what how you labor. I could cut down a tree and sell the planks, or I could work at mc donalds for a wage. You necessarily choose what to do with your labor unless someone else uses force or coercion against you.

  17. If I do not voluntarily choose to use my labor to, say, cut down a tree, then the only way my labor will end up being used to do cut down that tree is if someone uses force or coercion to make me do it. Therefore, I own my labor.

  18. You don't understand the difference between rights and liberty. liberty is our freedom to enjoy our rights. Does the fact that people are murdered prove that it's not illegal to murder people? You're using the same logic.

  19. You "walking down the hall" statement is not analogous to my statement. If you do not voluntarily use your labor to cut down a tree, and nobody forces you to cut down the tree, then your labor will necessarily not be used to cut down the tree. If your muscles spasm and you end up cutting the tree down, then that is no more labor than accidentally punching yourself in the face is.

  20. LOL? Then what's with the thousands of successful small business owners in the US? Are you hallucinating? You don't need to be the CEO of coca-cola to make a living.

  21. "The point is that in the real world, property is bought and sold from others for units of exchange. These units are accumulated somehow by working for others. At all levels, people depend upon other people to accumulate these units of exchange." This in no way disproves the existence of property rights. "So people do work for each other." When did I deny that people work for each other? straw man much?

  22. Now I know you're either hallucinating or lying. Quote me saying anything religious at all. You can't, because I didn't, and you just made that up. Either intentionally, because you're a lier, or unintentionally, because you're on drugs.

  23. One can absolutely over analyze. At the point when analyzing and theorizing about concept takes more time/resources than it would take to actually put that concept into action and get the results, then you have definitely over analyzed.

  24. I'm glad he makes videos like this, a lot of people don't think this way, though i think they should, it's their right though. Maybe then they could take action and the world would be a little better.

  25. What resources do you spend using your brain? Time, maybe. But is it really not worth the time to sit there and think about things that challenge your mind? If you think that, that's sad. What do you spend so much time doing that you can't stop and think?

  26. a duty can also come from something someone has done in the past, for example someone who has stolen something has an obligation to give it back, and someone who damages your car has an obligation to get it fixed. similarly, I would argue your right to trial or an attorney doesn't violate people's negative rights, an entity (the government) is doing something to you (accusing you) and this creates an obligation from them.

  27. "Libertarianism completely fails to account for exploitation."

    That is because the word exploitation, like the word fair is almost meaningless.

    Each time someone uses these words there is an implied standard that nobody seems to be able to be able to define. The only times I have seen anyone try to pin down a definition it circles back to the central idea "I was taught this was unfair in kindergarten"

    But the real world is too complex for that. We need rules to reflect unpleasant truths.

  28. There is no such thing as "positive" rights. There is no such thing as the right to violate rights. That would undermine the entire concept of rights, even the right to violate rights. It's self negating. So called "positive" rights involve forcing others to provide you with something by right. To force others to provide something to people they don't even know, by force, is a degree of slavery. There can be no right to enslave as there can be no right to violate rights.

  29. Marx never had the luxury of being exposed to the subjective theory of value. Lets say that you agree to do landscaping for me for $3k. I pay you the $3k & I in turn sell my house for an additional $10k. You haven't been exploited because you never owned the value in my home. Neither did I. Market value is a market determination. I merely owned the legal rights. Everyone involved gains, no one loses. Even the guy who paid an additional $10k gained because he wasn't looking for a fixer-upper.

  30. You are misinterpreting coercion. Inequality (hunger in extreme) is not a form of coercion because the natural state of the human being is hunger.

    You were not born in the garden of eden, the only reason you have what to eat everyday is because of WORK. It is completely fair that we be compelled to work in order to eat because food prodoction, as any other form of life improvement, involves labour.

    If you don`t work and eat, you`re wheter under charity, or coercing some worker.

  31. We are talking about things on a human-to-human level. Morality is a human issue, and so too are 'voluntary' and 'involuntary' interactions between humans. The agreement in most employment contracts is completely voluntary. You do not have to enter into this agreement. You are free to go and can take your business elsewhere. No HUMAN is forcing you by, say, threat of imprisonment or physical harm, to work for them.

  32. The origin of profit is that value is subjective, Any two individuals entering into a voluntary trade BOTH profit. There is a net gain in the overall quality of life for those individuals. If I voluntarily buy a pen from the store, then I would rather have that pen than my $2. If the store voluntarily sells it, then they would rather have my $2 than that pen. Simple as that. Voluntary trades unequivocally increase net wealth, because value is SUBJECTIVE.

  33. Firstly, how does:
    "If I do not voluntarily choose to walk down the hall, then I am being forced to walk down the hall" fail on logical grounds? It makes perfect sense. If you didn't want to walk down the hall, you wouldn't have. You 'voluntarily chose' to.

  34. You can't even extend than analogy to make logical sense can you? BOTH PARTIES PROFIT. Doesn't matter HOW the items got there. I could pick up a coconut off the ground and another guy in my tribe could pick up a sharp rock off the ground, then we meet, trade, and BOTH profit. Come on man, use your brain.

  35. This is how I see it:

    We can have pressures on us. Pressures are things we don't want. Pain is an example (for most of us at least) of a pressure. Pressures can be lifted or lightened

    If someone applies or threatens to apply a pressure to you if you don't do something for them, that is coercion.

    If someone offers to lift or lighten a pressure of yours if you do something for them, and they aren't the source of the pressure, then that isn't coercion.

  36. Problem: Oh gee, not everybody can get what they want.
    Solution: Ignore specific problems until the big problem goes away.

    Sounding smart is not good enough.

  37. So you have never met anyone who tried to define fairness using the veil of ignorance idea?

    It makes sense that what is fair should generally be what we as people can agree is just provided we are making the decision to label it so from a hypothetical position of complete ignorance. In other words, we imagine we are in societal purgatory, unaware of what our position in life will be, and then make the call on whether it is fair.

    Usually results in inherited suffering being deemed unfair.

  38. p1 I agree. This is not 10,000 BC so we don't NEED to help each other anymore. Survival no longer depends on that kind of behavior.

    However other things do. In order to educate the entire population, the fortunate will need to help the less fortunate. I tend to think that everyone should be seeking education because it improves us and helps society progress forward. I would argue that this is why we should help one another: to increase human potential, rather than simply preventing suffering.

  39. I agree we should be. But I don't think we're obligated to, as in, I don't think it's wrong to go live in a cave somewhere instead of increasing human potential.

  40. I appreciate you guys making this video! A great explanation of Positive vs. Negative Rights.
    Thanks!

  41. If you are referring to taxes, then please try to keep in mind that paying taxes to your local, state, and/or federal government is a form of trade, not theft. Governments exist to keep law and order, and to protect the rights of communities and individuals. Nations endure and prosper when balance is maintained between personal freedom and social order. When the scale leans too heavily to the latter side, it isn't due to taxation, but due to abuse of authority.

  42. There should be a balance between positive and negative rights.

    Positive and negative rights are inversely related. A gain in negative rights results in a loss of positive rights and a gain in positive right results in a loss of negative rights. 

    i.e.
    Everyone is free to go to school. Not everybody has the money to go to school.
    Government provides free education. Citizens lose money in form of taxes.

  43. The positive right to an attorney is created by the infringement of the arrested person's personal rights by the police officer. If the state is going to jail someone, the state must prove the case using "due process" of law, which requires an attorney to interpret the law to the accused. 

  44. You know, it's amazing that people use this video to argue for the whole Hobby Lobby bs going on. People actually use this video to argue that it isn't persecution to deny something to someone based entirely on that person's sexuality or religion.

  45. Hogwash. Those who wield power have rights and those who don't have no rights unless those who wield power give them rights.

  46. this is what happens when you allow attorney and legalese to distort the un-A-lienable  rights by our creator .. one big mess

  47. liberty ARE un-A-lienable rights… and until others rights have been violated there no interpretation.. please refer to the bible for violated rights

  48. i love this, am a law student studying in brasil but i have difficulties at times in class due to language barrier but this doctor explanation makes everything more easy now

  49. Great video. Thanks. Group rights (such as those of a nation or positive rights?) can come into conflict with individual negative rights. A nation may want to implement a policy that is supported by the majority but will also entail infringing on individual negative rights. As far as I know Marxists hold that rights primarily inhere in the group rather than the individual. So the rights of the group have veto over those of the individual (on a Marxist account). How do we evaluate which set of rights (group or individual) are better and therefore should be enforced (if any)? I think only an appeal to consequences will work. Rights have no metaphysical foundation. They are simply things we humans think are worth adopting for our good. That is, generally they reduce suffering and increase our ability to live the good life in some form. However if we appeal to consequences to decide between group rights and individual rights we have, in effect, rejected the notion of rights because rights now will only be founded on good consequences and are not stable like rights are supposed to be. I propose that "rights" should be downgraded in their authority. We could view them as general rules that seem good to live by but if it becomes very clear that overall a particular right is doing more bad than good then we should be able to reject this "right". Sometimes group rights do more harm than good and sometimes group rights are good overall – the same can be said for individual rights (just think of anarcho-capitalism). In sum, I think consequentialism should veto both group rights and individual rights (when rights are clearly shown to fail). However I think they should be kept in most cases because they provide a good rule of thumb.

  50. I have understood most of it, but what I did not understand is the part about Negative Liberty that had to do with the Steak. Now the thing is if I was poor, and I couldn't afford something, my situation "being poor" does not really justify being in any position to be demanding anything in specific, but if I could not afford steak, or in this situation "food" then the country must provide it for me as it is one of my rights as a citizen of that country, correct? I hope what I am saying is still related to this topic. Can someone clarify if they have better explanations? Thank you ^_^

  51. Rights = Individual "powers" that can be taken away by force (usually by law).
    Freedoms = Collective "powers" enjoyed by individuals that can only be limited by force (usually by law), but can never be completely taken away.

  52. What about the classic "right to not be offended"? I can totally see lefties saying "It's a negative right. All you have to do is not offend me."

  53. Welfare is probably a positive right. Some might argue paying for it through taxes is acceptable because of a contract between a man and the government, while others might say it infringes negative rights to control your money. At least, hopefully I'm catching on.

  54. I didn't see the right to an attorney as a positive right because the court only has to provide it if it moves ahead with an accusation. So they don't have to provide one to anyone if they don't process anyone for a crime

  55. If you don't base all rights on moral principles, none of it makes any sense.  Principles must come first.  You cannot enslave someone in order to receive a positive right.  That violates natural rights (which are negative) and fundamental morality.

  56. Saying that the social contract isn't consensual isn't an argument. Contracts such as the generational contract or contracts of anynomous interaction can never be consensual. You are excepted to consent, and people's willingness to do so is the reason a society can function. Stating that no choice can be made without consulting every person that could negatively affect would make government, business, education, medisin and manufacturing impossible. I repeat, this is not a valid argument, wake up…

  57. This was an excellent explanation and overview. Great video! I really believe people need to do more research and reading into their prefered style of "Politics" prior to even registering to Vote. People (Left and Right) often don't even know their selected political stances Core values/platform prior to casting a vote. A DUMB voter is more dangerous than the Corrupt Politician. Educate, Understand, Ponder and Think for yourself! Once you think you understand — Go and repeat the steps until you are totally sure of your understanding. Politics in the US is purely based on Emotions today, if you allow Emotions to rule your thinking than you are in for some terrible reality checks!

  58. Animals, which includes the human animal, have fundamental negative rights (and very few positive ones humans have cooked up "for them").

  59. Saved my life the text book was so useless at explaining this to an extent to where now that i understand it looking at the text after seeing this i still dont understand what the book is saying lol thnx !!

  60. Great explanation. I already had the basic concept of positive and negative rights before watching this, but I had never realized the connection to the terms "liberty" and "entitlement" before. Now that you point that out it makes perfect sense.

  61. So when they say the fed is the only people who have to uphold all the liberties in the constitution…. that’s not really true because most of these negative rights would be conflicting in the marketplace, far removed from the oversight of federal government.

  62. Whilst I agree that positive liberties can sometimes infringe on negative liberties which are the fundament of personal freedom, without positive liberties life is not necessarily great. Imagine being homeless, without support and without money in a truly free society, although you technically could exercise your liberties (i.e. join a library) you most certainly will not, because of external constraints. Since you can't exercise your liberties one question arises: Are you really free?

    I think we have to strike a balance between positive and negative liberties, so that everyone can be free. This is what most social democrats believe in Europe.

  63. one question, when you are arrested and are told "you have the right to remain silent", does that mean you are obliged to stay silent or you can stay silent if you want to?

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