The Concept of "Rights:" An Outline

Rights can take on many forms and serve various functions. Fundamentally, a right grants some entitlement, permission, or protection to the rights-holder. Rights also impose duties on others to respect those entitlements. There are several key ways to conceptualize rights:

Hohfeld’s analytic framework

When thinking about what it means to have a right it is sometimes useful to replace the word “right” with another word that expresses something similar. Let’s review some of these words in order to get a more differentiated notion of what it means to have rights. Each of these translations only capture an aspect of what we usually understand by the word “right,” but taken together they give a more comprehensive meaning of the concept of “rights”. This overview is partially based on the work of the influential American Jurist Wesley Hohfeld (1879-1918).

Wesley Hohfeld was a Harvard law professor who developed a framework for understanding interests in property. Property rights may not be the most fundamental form of rights, but they are  an important class of rights, because they define political systems as well. (see John Locke)  Hohfeld aims at a formal definition of rights in general, and he uses eight terms that can be arranged either as opposites, or as correlatives. The following two tables show this conceptual structure of correlative and opposite terms that determines the internal relationships among different fundamental legal rights.



A privilege is the opposite of a duty; a no-right is the opposite of a right. A disability is the opposite of a power; an immunity is the opposite of a liability. The term “correlatives” means that these aspects of rights exist on the different sides of a legal relationship between two persons. If someone has a right, it exists only with respect to someone else who has a duty. If someone has a privilege, it exists with respect to someone else who has no right. If someone has a power, it exists with respect to someone else who has a liability. If someone has an immunity, it exists with respect to someone else who has a disability.

A right can be enforced by a lawsuit against the person who has the correlative duty. A privilege negates that right and duty, and typically would be asserted as an affirmative defense in the lawsuit. A power is the capacity to create or change a legal relationship. For example, if you make a contract offer, you must have the power to create a contract, and someone else must have the power of accepting the offer (or not). If the power to create the contract is exercised, then both parties have rights and duties with respect to each other. Courts have power only if plaintiffs or prosecutors exercise their power to commence a lawsuit. Sovereign states are immune because courts lack power over them, in which case courts are said to have a disability with respect to sovereigns.

The example of property rights

If I “own” property, it means that I have various rights with respect to the thing constituting my property – the “bundle” of rights. For instance, I probably have the right to exclude others from it; which means everyone else in the world has a correlative duty not to use my property. Some people, however, may still have some privileges in relation to it, for instance, to fly over it. I also have power with respect to my property because I can create rights for others, for example: I can transfer some or all of the property to them, I can create easements, which gives the grantee certain rights vis-a-vis others and certain rights and privileges vis-a-vis me.

Here is a breakdown of different terms that define rights; this list is based on the Hohfeldian system, but expands it further.

Conclusion: Only if we combine all these different definitions of rights can we have an overall understanding of them. A comprehensive understanding of rights draws from all these multifaceted conceptualizations. Rights are complex entities that protect freedoms, create duties, empower abilities, serve interests, limit powers, grant permissions, make claims, and create spheres of control for the rights-bearer. Any analysis of rights should consider their various dimensions.