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Two Types of Rights*

  • Paul Marshall (a1)


The expression “human rights” is used currently to denote two distinct items: one is a guarantee given in positive law; the other is a moral claim purportedly innate to human beings. These two items commonly are conflated, implying that they have a necessary connection. Historically they do not; positive human rights have been defended by those with no concept of innate rights, while believers in extensive innate rights have argued for limited positive rights. The defence of positive rights of the type now found in international treaties would be served by distinguishing it from justifications of the contention that human beings have rights.

L'expression « droits de la personne » est actuellement utilisée pour signifier deux choses différentes. La première est la garantie donnée par la loi positive; la deuxième un droit moral considéré comme inné chez les êtres humains. Souvent ces deux concepts se trouvent confondus, ce qui impliquerait un lien nécessaire. Historiquement il n'en est rien; les « droits de la personne » ont été défendus par des individus ignorant tout des droits innés, cependant que ceux qui croyaient aux droits innés ne revendiquaient qu'un droit positif limité. La défense des droits de la personne tels qu'ils apparaissent actuellement dans les traités internationaux ne pourrait que bénéficier d'une distinction entre ceux-ci et une justification de la présomption que les êtres humains ont des droits.



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1 While a view of rights as “trumps” was articulated most clearly by Ronald Dworkin, it points more widely to a feature common in modern jurisprudence. See the survey provided in Gillman, H., “The Evolution of the Right Trump in the American Constitutional Tradition,”paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association,Washington, D.C., 1991.

2 Sumner, L. W., The Moral Foundation of Rights (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 8.

4 Marintain, Jacques, Man and State (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), 77.

5 See Vasak, Karal, “A Thirty Year Struggle,” UNESCO Courier 29 (11 1977).

6 Occasionally the vocabulary of rights involves a discussion of positivity and negativity derived from Isaiah Berlin's famous distinction of “positive” and “negative” liberties in his “Two Concepts of Liberty,” in Four Essays on Liberty (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969), 118172. However, in this article I use the expression “positive rights” to refer exclusively to rights in positive law.

7 Particular illustrations of this gloss are given in Sniderman, Paul M., Fletcher, Joseph F., Russell, Peter H. and Tetlock, Philip E., “Political Culture and the Problem of Double Standards: Mass and Elite Attitudes toward Language Rights in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” this Journal 22 (1989), 259284.

8 A summary version of this brief historical survey and the comments below on the Dominicans and on Locke is also given in Marshall, Paul, “Innate Rights and Just Relations,” Koers 56 (1991), 139149.

9 McGrade, A. S., “Ockham and the Birth of Individual Rights,” in Tierney, B. and Linehan, P., eds., Authority and Power: Studies in Medieval Law and Government (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 149165; Villey, M., “La genèse du droit subjectif chez Guillaume d'Occam,” Archives de philosophie du droit 9 (1964), 97127; Tierney, B., “Villey, Ockham and the Origins of Individual Rights,” in Witte, J. and Alexander, F. S., eds., The Weightier Matters of the Law: Essays on Law and Religion (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988), 132.

10 The degree to which contemporary liberal theorists hold rights or rights-based theories is a matter of continuing dispute and definitional subtlety. I would put Nozick, Gewirth and Feinberg in this category, and agree with Dworkin that at least the early Rawls presents a rights-based theory. Rawls himself disputes this. See Dworkin, R., Taking Rights Seriously (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978), chap. 6; Rawls, J., “Justice as Fairness: Political Not Metaphysical,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 14 (1985), 236.

11 Gewirth, Alan, “The Basis and Contents of Human Rights,” in Pennock, J. R. and Chapman, J. W., eds., Human Rights (New York: New York University Press, 1981), 119147.

12 MacIntyre, Alasdair, After Virtue (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), 6667.

13 Melden, A. I., Rights in Moral Lives (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 147, and Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” 129.

14 See Tierney, “Villey, Ockham,” 31. See also Villey, “La genèse du droit subjectif”; Vereecke, L., “Individu et communauté selon Guillaume d'Ockham,” Studia Moralia 3 (1965), 150177; Tuck, R., Natural Rights Theories: Their Origin and Development (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979); and McGrade, A. S., “Rights, Natural Rights and the Philosophy of Law,” in Kretzmann, N., Kenny, A. and Pinborg, J., eds., The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Later Medieval Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 738756.

15 MacIntyre, After Virtue, 65.

16 McGrade, “Rights, Natural Rights,” 746.

17 Lunscombe, D. E., “Natural Morality and Natural Law,” in Kretzmann, et al. , eds., The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Later Medieval Philosophy, 707.

18 Tierney, B., “Public Expediency and Natural Law: A Fourteenth Century Discussion on the Origins of Government and Property,” in Tierney, and Linehan, , eds., Authority and Power, esp. 175177.

19 McGrade, “Ockham and the Birth,” 152; McGrade, “Rights, Natural Rights,” 742; and Tierney, “Public Expediency.”

20 See Tuck, Natural Rights Theories, 48–50. For background see O'Meara, Thomas F., “Spanish Theologians and Native Americans in the Years after Columbus,”paper delivered at the Kellogg Institute, University of Notre Dame,October 31, 1991, and Hanke, Lewis, Aristotle and the American Indians: A Study in Race Prejudice in the Modern World (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1959).

21 Social Contract, II. iv.

22 Tuck, Natural Rights Theories, 3.

23 See Marshall, Paul, Human Rights Theories in Christian Perspective (Toronto: Institute of Christian Studies, 1983), 13f.

24 John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, Book II, chap. 1, para. 1 (II.1.1).

25 Ibid., II.11.6.

27 Ibid., II.4.23.

28 In his The Political Thought of John Locke (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), John Dunn pointed out that Locke's resistance theory was an extension of his rejection of suicide. Richard Ashcraft develops a similar theme in relation to property in his Revolutionary Politics and Locke's “Two Treatises of Government” (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), 258f. It may be argued, perhaps, that the limitation on natural freedom in Locke stems, in turn, from God's right over human beings and so the foundation of political freedom remains a form of natural right.

29 See the comments in Sumner, The Moral Foundation of Rights, 126.

30 MacIntyre, After Virtue, 65. See also Marshall, Paul, “Dooyeweerd's Empirical Theory of Rights,” in McIntire, C. T., ed., The Legacy of Herman Dooyeweerd (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1985), 124f.

31 Nelson, W., “On the Alleged Importance of Moral Rights,” Ratio 18 (1976), 154, 155, and Feinberg, J., “The Nature and Value of Rights,” Journal of Value Inquiry 4 (1970), 249. The distinction of claimant and complainant is from Lyons, D., “Rights, Claimants and Beneficiaries,” American Philosophical Quarterly 6 (1969), 177.

32 See the comments of Raz, J. in his “Rights-Based Morality,” in Waldron, J., ed., Theories of Rights (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 182200.

33 van der Vyver, J., “Constitutional Options for Post-Apartheid South Africa,” Emory Law Journal 40 (1991), 771.

34 It may, perhaps, be argued that, regardless of whether there are any innate rights, a population that believes that there are will contribute to a culture wherein positive human rights are protected. The argument raises a whole new set of ethical questions but at this juncture we may note that, if innate rights arguments do not comport with positive rights guarantees, there is no prima facie reason to think that innate rights attitudes would do any better.

35 Sniderman, P. M., Fletcher, J. F., Russell, P. H. and Tetlock, P. E., “Reply: Strategic Calculation and Political Values—The Dynamics of Language Rights,” this Journal 23 (1990), 538. This is a reply to MacMillan, C. Michael, “Explaining Support for Language Rights: A Comment on Political Culture and Double Standards,” this Journal 23 (1990), 531536. As David Elkins emphasized in his presidential address to the Canadian Political Science Association, having a “thoroughly political” charter “is not necessarily a bad thing,” and provides a “good reason” for having Section 33 in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Facing Our Destiny: Rights and Canadian Distinctiveness,” this Journal 22 [1989], 715).

36 On the importance of stressing justice rather than equality in addressing rights claims, see Stone, Julius, “Justice Not Equality,” Hastings Law Journal 29 (1978), 9951024.

* Earlier versions of this article were presented at the Faculteit der Wijsbegeerte, Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, at the Department of Political Science, University of Calgary, and at the annual meeting of the Canadian Political Science Association, Kingston, Ontario, 1991. I would like to thank S. Griffioen, S. Drury, L. Jacobs, and P. Neal for comments and criticism on these occasions. Valuable advice was also given by the anonymous readers for this Journal. My thanks to the Vereniging Voor Christelijk Wetenschappelijk and the Faculteit der Wijsbegeerte, Vrije Universiteit, for study grants which made the work possible.

Two Types of Rights*

  • Paul Marshall (a1)


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