Rights and Duties

Philosophers often distinguish between positive and negative rights. A positive right entails positive duties. So, if you have a right to life, I have a duty to prevent your unjust loss of life (if I can do so without the loss of my life). The right to free speech seems to be a negative right. If you have the right to free speech, others have a duty not to stifle your speech, but it does not entail that others have a duty to assist you in speaking freely. Rights of individuals tend to anchor moral authority to the individual herself.

Moral and legal rights may be distinguished. So, you may have a moral right not to be tortured, and yet this is not recognized as a legal right. Some moral and legal rights may be generated by others. So, if I rightly own some property and I make you my beneficiary, you then have a right to the property in accord with my action. Rights (moral and legal) can be lost. Most philosophers recognize that persons have a right to self-defense and the right to life, but if you unjustly threaten another with lethal force, you lose your right to life and to self-defense.

Some duties do not give rise to rights. A person may have a duty to give to charity, but no particular charity has a right to your donation.