Rights are claims that have some justification behind them. A moral right is a morally justified claim. A legal right is a legally justified claim. When one uses the term "right" without specifying the nature of the justification, one usually means a moral right.

Rights specify acts that are permitted, forbidden, or required. If they specify acts that the rights-holder may perform (such as vote, or drive a car), they are often called licenses. If they specify acts that others may not perform (as the right to life obliges others to refrain from killing the rights holder), they are called liberties or (in law) negative rights. If they specify what the rights-holder should receive, the law commonly calls them positive rights, although philosophers such as Philippa Foot call them "claim right".

Other major types of classifications of rights are:

  • Alienable rights and inalienable rights. Alienable rights may be taken or given away. Inalienable rights cannot.
  • Human rights and special rights. Human rights belong to all people, or all people who are competent to exercise them. (Another term that is a close synonym for human rights is "natural rights.") In contrast, a right that only belongs to some people is termed a "special" right.
  • Absolute rights and prima facie rights. Absolute rights cannot be outweighed by other considerations; prima facie rights can be outweighed by other considerations. For example, many of those who oppose capital punishment say that the right to life is an absolute right, but those who believe that capital punishment is morally justified in some circumstances say it is only a prima facie right.


Cite this page: "RIGHTS" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 9/15/2006 National Academy of Engineering Accessed: Tuesday, February 9, 2016 <www.onlineethics.org/glossary/13270.aspx>