Negative rights are rights that restrict others from interfering with your life, liberty, and property. They are a core principle of liberalism.
These are known as “negative” rights because they require others to refrain from doing certain actions. For example, the right to privacy requires others to not invade your private space or access personal information without your consent.
Negative rights are often contrasted with positive ones, which oblige others to actively perform certain actions. We will discuss the distinction between the two later. First, let us learn about the concept in more detail & look at some examples.
Negative Rights Definition
Robert Nozick defines a negative right in the following way:
“A ‘negative’ right is a right not to be interfered with, a right that imposes no obligation upon others except that of non-interference.” (1974).
Negative rights are rights that focus on limiting others from interfering with an individual’s life, liberty, and property.
These imply a “negative” obligation on others, meaning that they require them to not do something (instead of actively taking any action) to protect the individual’s right.
A right is essentially a justified claim on others.
For example, a right to freedom means that I have a justified claim to live freely without being bothered by others. The “justification” of the right comes from a standard accepted by the whole society, such as a constitution or a local law.
Immanuel Kant, one of the most influential thinkers in Western philosophy, wrote extensively about moral rights. Kant argued that every human being must be treated as an end, not merely as a means to an end (1785).
In other words, we must respect the dignity of every individual instead of simply using someone for our own advantage. Kant’s ideas had a huge impact on our ideas about morality, and they shaped both the categories of rights (positive and negative), which we will discuss later.
Negative Rights Examples
- Right to life & Self-ownership: The right to life & self-ownership protect the life and bodily integrity of a human. The right to life is the belief that a human being (or any animal) must not be killed by another entity. The principle of the right to life is particularly significant in debates about capital punishment, euthanasia, etc. Self-ownership means that an individual has the right to be the exclusive controller of one’s body; here “control” refers to any physical interference.
- Right to own property: The right to own property is a right for natural persons to own and use property without interference. It gives people a sense of security, allowing them to invest in homes, businesses, and other assets. This right is recognized in Article 17 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, although it is not accepted by some international treaties due to its controversial nature. The debate arises from disagreements about the possible restrictions on property (say taxation or national interest), the ownership of property (natural persons or legal entities), etc.
- Right to privacy: The right to privacy restrains governmental or private actions that threaten an individual’s privacy, such as surveillance, disclosure of private information, etc. The right to privacy is particularly significant in our digital age, where personal information can be easily accessed and shared without consent. Most technology companies (Microsoft, Apple, Google, etc.) collect personal data, and various scandals (such as the Facebook–Cambridge Analytica one) reveal that there is an urgent need for legal safeguards.
- Freedom of speech: Freedom of speech is a principle that allows an individual or a group to articulate their thoughts without censorship, fear of retaliation, or legal measures. However, freedom of speech is rarely absolute, and there are laws prohibiting hate speech, incitement of violence, speech that endangers national security, etc. In the digital age, freedom of speech faces many new challenges as new forms of communication & restrictions arise. For example, the Chinese government uses the Golden Shield Project initiative, which filters criticism from foreign countries.
- Freedom of religion: Freedom of religion allows individuals and groups to practice any religion (by worshipping, observance, or teaching) of their choice. It allows grants individuals the right to change their religion or to not practice any religion. Most countries recognize freedom of religion as a fundamental right; some states have a state religion, and in such cases, freedom of religion means that the citizens can practice other religions too. Freedom of religion can often become debatable when religious practices conflict with secular law, such as the French law on face covering.
- Right to due process and fair trial: The right to a fair trial ensures that individuals get a trial that is fair and conducted with procedural regularity. There are no international laws dictating what constitutes a fair trial, although Article 10 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights mentions various rights associated with it. The right to fair trial ensures that individuals are not arbitrarily or unjustly imprisoned, ensuring that they get an opportunity to defend themselves (be told their charges, get legal representation, etc.).
- Protection against fraud: Although not considered a fundamental right, all law jurisdictions protect individuals against fraud, which refers to intentional deception. It is usually done to gain an unfair advantage or deprive someone of a legal right. Proving fraud in a court of law is often quite difficult as the intention is the key issue, and sometimes, courts require clear and convincing evidence. However, there are still many regulations that protect against fraud, and remedy it through monetary compensation, rescission (reversal) of transactions, punitive damages, etc.
- Right to keep & bear arms: The right to bear arms is quite a controversial issue, but it is often considered a negative right, especially in the United States. The Second Amendment guarantees individuals to keep & bear arms, and it is seen as something free from government interference (as long as the possession and use are for lawful purposes like self-defense or hunting). It is also seen as a way for people to protect themselves against tyranny. Several other countries like Ukraine, Mexico, and the Philippines also guarantee the right to keep and bear arms.
- Habeas corpus: Habeas corpus is a legal principle that protects individuals against arbitrary detention or imprisonment by the government. In Latin, the term means “that you have the body”, meaning that the detainee’s body should be brought to court. The individual can request the court to hear their case and determine whether their detention/imprisonment is lawful or not. Habeaus corpus is an important safeguard against government abuse of power, and it ensures that no one can be imprisoned indefinitely without legal justification.
- Freedom from movement: This freedom restricts the government’s ability to restrict an individual’s movement. Enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, this right allows people to travel freely in their country. Freedom of movement also includes the right to change one’s place of residence and work. It is common for countries to place restrictions on international travel. However, many countries have historically limited the movement of disadvantaged groups within their borders (Bauböck, 2009).
Positive Rights vs. Negative Rights
While negative rights require others to refrain from doing something, positive rights require them to actively perform a certain action.
In other words:
- Negative rights are rights from things, such as harm.
- Positive rights are rights to things, such as healthcare.
An individual’s positive rights oblige others to actively assist them in satisfying their basic needs. In other words, they are interventions by others (usually the government) that ensure that the individual has access to the resources required to lead a fulfilling life.
Positive rights are sometimes also called welfare rights. They include things like:
- The right to education
- The right to healthcare
- The right to a job, etc.
Unlike negative rights, these do not oblige us to not act; instead, they require us to actively help those in need.
Negative rights are usually considered more important than positive ones in protecting the autonomy of an individual. Libertarians especially emphasize negative rights, arguing that positive rights do not exist unless created by a contract.
However, some scholars do not agree with the distinction between negative and positive rights. For example, philosopher Henry Shue argues that all rights require both types of duties together. (1980)
Every right requires both avoidance (“negative”) as well as protective action (“positive”). For example, in case of a murder, individuals are obliged to perform both duties. One must exercise avoidance (the murderer), and others must try to protect (call the police or stop the murderer).
Shue’s point is that a negative right (here, the right not to be killed) can only be guaranteed with the help of positive duties (the protection of others). Shue even argues that the distinction is harmful as it can often lead to a neglect of necessary duties.
Related: Civil Rights Definition and Examples
Negative rights are rights that oblige others to refrain from certain actions.
These protect an individual’s life, liberty, and property by requiring others to not interfere. Negative rights are considered more essential than positive ones in protecting an individual’s autonomy. However, some scholars disagree with the distinction between the two.
Bauböck, R. (2009). Global Justice, Freedom of Movement and Democratic Citizenship. European Journal of Sociology, 50(1), 1-31. doi:10.1017/S000397560900040X
Kant, I. (1785). Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Translated by M. Gregor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Nozick, R. (1974). Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books.
Shue, H. (1980). Basic Rights: Subsistence, Affluence, and U.S. Foreign Policy. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.