Individual rights refer to the liberties and entitlements of each person that are inherent and cannot be arbitrarily taken away by a government or other entity.
These rights are often enshrined in laws and constitutions to protect individuals from undue interference and ensure their freedom and dignity.
Examples of individual rights include the right to life, the right to own property, the right to practice your own religion, and the right to free speech.
Definition and Origin of Individual Rights
Individual rights is a concept that was popularized during the Enlightenment era, where liberal philosophers such as John Locke (1689) and Adam Smith proposed that each individual human has inalienable or ‘natural’ rights that should not be violated by any other individual or group, including any government (Doebbler, 2006; Wenar, 2021).
The concept of individual rights was also central to the founding of the United States, where the founding fathers were particularly concerned with protecting the individual from the tyranny of government (MacIntyre, 2007; Rommen, 1998).
As Thomas Jefferson famously proclaimed:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
An interesting feature of individual rights is that they supersede democracy (Geuss, 2008; Wenar, 2021). In liberal philosophy, your natural rights as an individual should not be voted out or overthrown by others, even if a majority wishes it so (we call this ‘natural law’).
Such a mindset is designed to protect the dignity of minority groups. As famous libertarian philosopher and writer Ayn Rand argued:
“Individual rights are not subject to a public vote; a majority has no right to vote away the rights of a minority; the political function of rights is precisely to protect minorities from oppression by majorities (and the smallest minority on earth is the individual).”
I also like Larry Flont’s flavorful metaphor which puts forward the same point about individual rights:
“You can’t have five wolves and one sheep voting on what to have for dinner.”
Individual Rights Examples
1. Freedom of Speech
Freedom of Speech refers primarily to the right to express views without fear of governmental censorship or reprisal.
This right underpins the essence of democratic governance that allows citizens to articulate, debate, and exchange ideas. While this freedom is broad, it is also bounded by certain legal limits such as hate speech, incitement to illegal activity, or defamation.
Thus, while you enjoy the right to voice your opinions, it should be exercised with responsibility and consideration of societal norms.
2. Freedom of Religion
Freedom of Religion signifies the right to practice any religion or belief of your choice, or to abstain from any, without fear of coercion or reprisal.
This right safeguards your ability to hold personal beliefs and manifest them, either privately or publicly, in worship, observance, practice and teaching. Importantly, this freedom also extends to a person’s right to convert from one religion to another or to atheism.
However, much like many other rights, this freedom is also not absolute — it must be harmoniously balanced against the rights and freedoms of others.
3. Right to Privacy
The Right to Privacy protects your space, personal security, and information from being accessed or shared without your consent.
This means that you have the ability to control who has access to your personal and sensitive data, or your physical space. Intrusions can take many forms, such as surveillance, personal data breaches, interference with family or home, or spreading confidential information.
Legally, this right is often balanced against compelling public interests — for example, the right of law enforcement to detect or prevent crime.
4. Right to a Fair Trial
The Right to a Fair Trial means you are entitled to a just legal process when you are accused of committing a crime.
This includes representation by a lawyer, a presumption of innocence until proven guilty, a public and speedy trial, an impartial jury, and the ability to cross-examine witnesses. Through this process, it ensures the possibility to defend yourself against charges, safeguards against miscarriage of justice and enforces the rule of law.
In this framework, no one may be tried in secret or without adequate ability to prepare a defense.
5. Freedom of Assembly
Freedom of Assembly is your right to gather with others, in public or private, for non-violent purposes.
This freedom allows you to participate in mass gatherings, demonstrations, or any other form of collective action as part of a democratic society. It can be exercised for different reasons like expressing a common viewpoint, protesting a government action or legislation, or celebrating an event.
However, maintaining public safety, order, and the rights of others also require that this freedom has certain restrictions, provided they are prescribed by law and necessary.
6. Freedom of the Press
Freedom of the Press ensures your right to access and publish information or opinions without government censorship or fear of punishment.
This right helps to foster an informed citizenry, which is fundamental to the functioning of a democratic society. Whether it’s publishing a newspaper, posting a blog, or broadcasting a podcast, it all falls under this umbrella of freedom.
It’s important, however, to note that this freedom does not permit libel, slander, obscenity, pornography, sedition, incitement, or any forms of speech that violate other laws and rights.
7. Right to Bear Arms
The Right to Bear Arms covers Americans’ legal entitlement to possess and use arms, according to the regulations of your jurisdiction.
This right is often heralded as essential for self-defense and deterring unlawful violence with its roots deeply linked to historical militia duty. However, it’s important to consider that this right varies significantly across countries and contexts, often subject to severe regulations and restrictions to maintain public safety.
In the exercise of this right, the balance between personal liberty and community safety is fiercely contested and largely depends on local laws and cultural attitudes towards arms.
8. Right to Vote
The Right to Vote, also known as suffrage, ensures your entitlement to participate in your country’s political elections.
This right, the cornerstone of democratic societies, empowers citizens to influence legislative, executive, and local government through their votes. It champions equality, representation, and holds public officials accountable to the citizens.
However, this right may be restricted in certain situations such as felony disenfranchisement or mental incapacity — always subject to the principle of non-discrimination and the guarantee of universal and equal suffrage.
9. Right to Education
The Right to Education ensures access to free, compulsory primary education, and available and accessible secondary and higher education.
This right guarantees that you should have ample opportunity to learn and grow intellectually, no matter your socioeconomic status or geography. This includes both formal instruction in schools as well as lifelong learning processes that enable the continuous development of knowledge and skills.
While challenges exist, such as geographical or economic disparities, the underlying principle is the democratization of education for inclusive growth and social development.
10. Freedom from Torture
Freedom from Torture ensures that you are not subjected to any act causing severe physical or mental pain or suffering intentionally inflicted by a public official or with their consent.
The prohibition of torture is absolute and cannot be justified under any circumstances – even during a state of war, public emergency, or in the order from a superior officer or public authority. This right also has an accompanying duty for states to prevent acts of torture, to investigate allegations, and to provide redress and rehabilitation for victims.
11. Right to Work
The Right to Work means your freedom to choose your work, and it safeguards against forced or compulsory labor.
This right includes the opportunity to gain a living by a job that you freely choose or accept, with fair wages and safe and healthy working conditions. It also protects against unemployment and allows for the enjoyment of just and favorable conditions of work, including fair wages, reasonable hours, and equal opportunities.
Despite facing challenges like automation, changing job markets, and demographic shifts, the importance of ensuring fair employment conditions remains paramount.
See Also: Economic Freedom Examples
12. Right to Healthcare
The Right to Health Care ensures your access to health services necessary to maintain the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. This right is afforded to people in most developed nations, but not all (notably, not in the USA).
This implies that such services should be available, accessible, acceptable and of good quality for everyone, without discrimination. It covers a wide range of socio-economic factors that promote conditions in which people can lead a healthy life, including preventive healthcare, treatment and control of diseases.
The full realization of this right continues to be a challenge worldwide due to issues like high costs, shortages of healthcare professionals, and lack of healthcare infrastructure in rural areas.
13. Freedom of Movement
Freedom of Movement ensures your right to travel within the borders of your country, to leave and return to your country, or move to another country.
This freedom is vital as it contributes to personal development, commercial activity, cultural exchange, and political discourse. It enables you, subject to certain limitations, to travel, live, and work wherever you choose within the jurisdiction.
However, this right may still be restricted under certain conditions to protect national security, public order, public health or morals or the rights and freedoms of others.
14. Right to Property
The Right to Property maintains that you have the right to own, use, dispose of, and bequeath property, both individually and collectively. This individual right got a special mention in Jefferson’s famous quote, which I mentioned earlier in this article.
Property rights implies that no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of their property and it provides a foundation for a market economy and capitalist society. The right extends to all forms of property including personal possessions, land, inheritances, intellectual property, and investments.
Though eminent domain regulations may allow governmental takings of private property for public use, they typically include fair compensation requirements in respect of this right.
15. Right to Life
The Right to Life is a fundamental principle asserting your inherent right to live and the obligation of states to protect that right.
This right asserts that every human being has the intrinsic right to life and should have their life protected by law. It places an obligation on states to protect the lives of individuals within their jurisdiction from unlawful killing and avoidable death.
Caveats exist in relation to issues like capital punishment and euthanasia where legal and ethical complexities often arise. Similarly, in highly Christian nations, the concept of when life begins (conception vs birth) also adds complexity to this issue.
16. Freedom from Discrimination
Freedom from Discrimination asserts your right to equality and non-discrimination on any grounds such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political ideology, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status.
This fundamental human right aims to ensure that you are treated fairly and equally in the same circumstances. It applies to all areas of life, including employment, education, housing, and social services, among others.
Efforts to combat discrimination require legislative measures, awareness campaigns, or education programs, building towards a society where all members have equal standing and opportunities.
17. Right to Marry and Found a Family
The Right to Marry and Found a Family encompasses your freedom to choose your partner, to marry them, and to start a family according to national laws governing these rights.
This right means that you’re able to establish a family, have children, and enjoy the social, emotional, and economic strengths of this social unit. It also means that the family unit should enjoy protection and assistance from the government.
However, it also appreciates that these rights may be subject to certain limitations provided they are proportionate, and in the interest of public order, national security, and the protection of freedoms and rights of others.
18. Right to Legal Representation
The Right to Legal Representation guarantees your right to have a competent legal advocate during legal proceedings.
This right aims to ensure fairness in legal proceedings, empowering you to understand and navigate the complicated legal system. Legal representation can increase your chances of a beneficial legal outcome, prevent miscarriages of justice and contribute to the overall fairness of the judicial process.
However, the actual implementation of this right varies by jurisdiction, with some guaranteeing it only for certain types of proceedings or levels of potential punishment.
19. Right to Participate in Government
The Right to Participate in Government ensures that you can take part in the public affairs of your country, either directly or through freely elected representatives.
This encompasses a variety of activities, such as standing for public office, voting in elections, engaging in peaceful political protests and expressing political opinions. Participating in governance allows you to have a say in the policies and laws that affect your life.
Although this right is considered universal, limitations may be imposed by law to ensure that those who participate meet basic eligibility criteria.
20. Right to Seek Asylum from Persecution
The Right to Seek Asylum from Persecution covers your right to seek refuge in a different country if you face severe harm or threats because of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion at home.
Recognizing this right affirms the international commitment to human dignity and protection from harm. You should be able to find safety and sanctuary in another country without being returned to a place where your life or freedom would be at risk.
However, granting asylum often depends on an assessment of the credibility and nature of the persecution claimed, and asylum processes may vary significantly between nations.
21. Freedom from Arbitrary Arrest and Detention
Freedom from Arbitrary Arrest and Detention ensures protection against unjust, unpredictable, or unsanctioned deprivation of liberty by the state.
This right is integral to the maintenance of personal liberty and fair criminal justice processes. It prevents you from being arrested or detained unless there is a sensible suspicion that a crime has been committed and guarantees the right to contest the legality of the detention before a court.
As with many rights, minimal restrictions may be applied, but legitimate reasons should exist for the detention that comply with lawful and fair procedures.
As we navigate the complexities of the modern world, understanding individual rights becomes increasingly crucial. These rights illustrate our shared values of fairness, equality, and human dignity — the foundations of a just society (Doebbler, 2006; Jones, 1994). While their nuances and applications may range broadly, the core principle remains the same: respect and protection of individual freedoms. With this understanding, you’re better equipped to recognize when these rights are upheld, compromised, or in need of your advocacy.
Doebbler, C. F. J. (2006). Introduction to International Human Rights Law. CD Pub.
Geuss, R. (2008). Philosophy and real politics. Princeton University Press.
Jones, P. (1994). Rights. Palgrave Macmillan.
Locke, J. (1689). The Two Treatises of Civil Government (Hollis ed.). A. Millar et al.. https://oll.libertyfund.org/title/hollis-the-two-treatises-of-civil-government-hollis-ed
MacIntyre, A. C. (2007). After virtue: A study in moral theory. University of Notre Dame Press. https://books.google.ge/books?id=7bLuAAAAMAAJ
Rommen, H. A. (1998). The Natural Law: A Study in Legal and Social History and Philosophy. Liberty Fund.
Wenar, L. (2021). Rights. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2021). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2021/entries/rights/
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]