Rights refer to entitlements determined by law and custom, while privileges refer to special advantages or opportunities granted by power, authority, or circumstance.
Rights are legal or moral entitlements that individuals have by virtue of being human (see also: natural rights). In western democracies, we respect basic human rights because they safeguard and empower people, serving as a moral anchor that cannot be tampered with.
Examples of these principle-based entitlements include freedom of speech, fair voting procedures, and equitable legal proceedings – all crucial aspects that uphold society’s integrity.
Privileges, on the other hand, are special advantages or benefits granted to certain individuals or groups.
Factors like social status, race, or affluence commonly determine the allocation of these privileges. Some examples of privileges include the privilege of a private education, the privilege your boss has of having a personal assistant, and the privilege of exclusive access to an elite paid-for-only club.
In general terms, rights promote equality and provide a level playing field for everyone, whereas privileges create inequality by providing certain advantages to some but not others.
Definition of Rights
Rights are fundamental entitlements that every individual is entitled to have simply by virtue of being human. They protect individuals from arbitrary state or societal interference and are often enshrined in law as legal guarantees.
According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,
“Rights are entitlements (not) to perform certain actions, or (not) to be in certain states; or entitlements that others (not) perform certain actions or (not) be in certain states” (Wenar, 2005).
Rights cut across different aspects of life, such as economic, social, cultural, political, civil (see: civil rights), and environmental domains.
Human rights can be classified into two types: inherent rights that belong to all humans (e.g., the right to life) and rights that governments or international organizations give through treaties and conventions (e.g., the Right to Education).
Rights are generally deemed universal and should apply equally to all regardless of race, gender, age, etc. (United Nations, 1948).
They are also considered indivisible – meaning that individuals should enjoy all basic human rights regardless of whether they can exercise some rights due to specific circumstances fully. For instance, a person living in a state emergency zone where movement is curtailed should still have access to medical care if it’s a right generally afforded in normal circumstances.
The concept of rights emerged as a necessary means for ensuring individual dignity and protecting people from oppression (Andorno, 2014).
It recognizes that every individual deserves respect just for being human and affirms our obligation as citizens toward creating a more equitable society where everyone’s rights are respected and upheld.
Protecting and promoting human rights can lead to positive advances in society, such as increasing empowerment, social cohesion, and economic growth while limiting instances of discrimination or arbitrary exercise of government power (see: limited government).
10 Examples of Rights
Rights commonly enjoyed in liberal democracies include:
- Right to life: This is one of the most basic human rights and refers to an individual’s right not to be unlawfully deprived of life.
- Right to liberty: This right guarantees every individual’s freedom from arbitrary detention and arrest without a just cause, including freedom from slavery in all its forms.
- Right to security: Every individual is entitled to security against any form of physical violation or physical harm perpetrated by other people or even by state actors.
- Freedom from discrimination: Human beings are entitled to equality irrespective of their gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or political views.
- Freedom from torture: Everyone has the right not to be subjected to torture under any circumstance.
- Right against arbitrary interference with privacy: Every person has the right not to have their private lives interfered with without justified reasons, such as criminal investigations based on established facts.
- Freedom of thought/expression/religion/belief: Citizens have a right to thoughts that cannot lead to harm towards others as expressed openly in words in religion, faith expressions, media, etc.
- Right to education: All citizens, regardless of economic ability, should have access to the education necessary to acquire knowledge and improve their quality of life later on.
- Right to information access: Everyone can demand access to information held by government entities without fear of retaliation, and it helps promote transparency and accountability.
- Right to a fair trial: Every individual accused of a crime is entitled to a fair and impartial trial process before an independent tribunal, with free access to legal representation.
Definition of Privileges
The concept of privileges is related to the idea that some groups or individuals have been granted certain benefits or advantages by society based on their status or position (Black & Stone, 2005).
Privileges are not inherent entitlements based on citizenship (or even status as a human) like rights, but instead are often afforded based on a particular status such as wealth, social standing, education, contacts, or other influential means.
“Studies on privilege define it as the unearned comparative advantages and benefits individuals enjoy because of their membership of dominant groups in societies characterized by structural inequalities” (De Cleen & Alberto, 2023, p. 5).
Privileges may come from various sources, including legislation, societal norms, and personal relationships or networks.
Those who enjoy privileges may access better opportunities within society, a better standard of living, and a personal growth path that would otherwise be available only after many years of hard work and sacrifice by others without the same returns.
Privileges operate mostly within social systems and tend to benefit those with a dominant position in society due to gender, race, economic ability, etc (Sutton, 2020).
For instance, political leaders enjoy privilege by possessing executive authority, while religious leaders offer spiritual guidance but, through influence, command obedience from members of their faith.
Privileges may also have legal standing depending on the country in question. A common example is tax exemption privileges awarded to people with diplomatic immunity. If used properly, these people can add value to society.
So, privileges can be seen as entitlements that favor certain individuals at the detriment or disadvantage of others, and they often perpetuate inequality unless checked.
10 Examples of Privileges
- Wealth privilege: People with financial resources tend to enjoy better opportunities, services, and living standards than those without. This privilege affords people access to quality education, better healthcare, luxury goods, experiences, and investment opportunities.
- Social status privilege: Some individuals may be born into a social status (see: ascribed status) that comes with benefits like respect from others, influence within groups, and connections with influential members of society. Such connections can create paths to access power and important business networks or enable the rise of various departments making it easier to get funding for their projects.
- Race or ethnicity privilege: In some societies, certain races and ethnicities enjoy systematic preference over minority groups, especially concerning employment opportunities. For example, in the United States there is a longstanding concept of white privilege.
- Gender privilege: Historically, certain gender-based customs and traditions have provided men with more opportunities and choices than women (see: gender stereotyping). This has resulted in men having a greater likelihood of acquiring power and occupying leadership positions in politics and the corporate world. Consequently, statistically, men as a group have generally enjoyed greater pay and more power than women as a group – this is known as the glass ceiling.
- Appearance privilege: It was hard to find a better term than this – when I went to high school, we called it “pretty girl privilege.” Individuals who are attractive can often get away with subtle things that less attractive people cannot. Similarly, overweight people often face subtle bias against them, such as being made fun of or judged as lazy and unhealthy.
- Physical ability: Unfortunately, some attitudes held toward people suffering from physical disabilities may miss out on job opportunities or career advancements, or accessibility provisions provided by law. At the most basic level, we see that people in wheelchairs cannot access certain establishments that others can.
- Educational attainment privileges: Educational attainment is increasingly seen globally as a meaningful lever of individual success, better earnings, respected career, and gains influencing board rooms further non-attendees. In this sense, being educated is a privilege that we should be grateful to receive.
- Geographic location/residency privileges: Certain geographic areas enjoy privileges based on their location, including proximity to amenities and a well-developed transportation system. This can lead to higher income opportunities, contributing to an improved standard of living for residents in these areas. In contrast, remote locations may lack such advantages, limiting the chances for individuals to enhance their quality of life.
- First mover privilege: People or companies who introduce new products or services first in a new market may gain significant competitive advantages over any rivals who come later. This can include brand recognition, market share control, and certain profit margins. Some societies recognize this as a problem in certain circumstances, leading to the passing of laws against insider trading, for example.
- Perception privilege: Based on personal qualities, attitude, family background, and the people you know, how others perceive your persona could open doors to previously closed-off to you. Perception plays a huge role in promoting one’s skills, capabilities, and talents through a positive global view, courtesy of those who can influence the social, economic, & political spheres.
Rights vs. Privileges: Similarities and Differences
Rights and privileges are two concepts that may share some similarities but differ in many significant ways.
Let’s take a closer look at their similarities and differences:
- Both come with some inherent benefits or advantages: Rights are considered essential for the well-being and freedom of individuals, while privileges afford benefits based on certain status.
- Both can be subject to varying interpretations and jurisdictions: Rights and privileges differ from country to country and can even vary within different legal code interpretations depending upon contextual interpretation.
- Denial of both rights and privileges is damaging: Differentiated access to both rights and privileges causes social inequalities. Whereas society generally aims to ensure everyone has access to all their inherent rights, this is often not the case in reality.
- Rights are universal, while privileges are not: Everyone should have access to their human rights regardless of their background or skin color, while only certain individuals enjoy specific advantages related to privilege.
- Rights cannot be revoked unless for the protection of others: Generally, everyone has their rights for life, except in circumstances such as imprisonment where rights are restricted for the protection of society. Privileges, on the other hand, can be easily revoked if not responsibly exercised by the person benefiting from the privilege.
- Rights are inherent, while privileges may be earned: Fundamental rights are universal and should not be taken away from any individual, while certain advantages that come with privilege may be earned, enjoyed temporarily, or revoked depending upon how the bearer responsibly exercises them.
In essence, although both terms imply advantages relating to humans, one refers specifically to non-refutable entitlements while the other can be revoked or change more easily.
Rights and privileges are two terms used to describe individuals’ advantages in society.
Rights are inherent entitlements that every individual has by being human. On the other hand, privileges are benefits or advantages conferred on certain people based on their status, position, or connection with other influential individuals.
While both concepts may benefit different individuals under different circumstances, rights, and privileges differ significantly.
Privilege is often associated with providing exclusive access to benefits, creating an unequal playing field.
While some believe privilege offers opportunities for those who work hard to earn them, there is criticism towards those with significant privileges that they may not have rightfully earned.
Andorno, R. (2013). Human dignity and human rights. Handbook of Global Bioethics, 45–57. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-2512-6_66
Black, L. L., & Stone, D. (2005). Expanding the definition of privilege: The concept of social privilege. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 33(4), 243–255. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.2161-1912.2005.tb00020.x
De Cleen, B., & Alberto, J. (2023). Populism of the privileged: On the use of underdog identities by comparatively privileged groups. Political Studies, 1–26. https://doi.org/10.1177/00323217231160427
Sutton, H. (2020). Understand the privileges, power of academic leadership. Dean and Provost, 21(11), 12–12. https://doi.org/10.1002/dap.30750
United Nations. (1948). Universal Declaration of Human Rights. United Nations. https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights
Wenar, L. (2005). Rights. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/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]