Individual Rights Definition
There are two aspects to understanding the concept of individual rights: one, as it’s contrasted against group rights, and two, as basic “rights” that all those on Earth, regardless of state, should have access to, by virtue of being born human.
The two are not separate concepts – rather, it may be helpful to see them as being on opposite ends of a spectrum.
On one end, there’s the idea of statehood, or beyond (global unity), and identity through group affiliation. On the other, the lone individual.
Conflicts or issues that arise in everyday life as well as in rhetorical discussions in classrooms on this spectrum do so around the question of, when do the individual’s rights end, and the need to enforce public policy begin?
As Ayn Rand, author and founder of the philosophical idea known as “Objectivism” which is grounded on the primacy of individualism said, “The smallest minority on Earth is the individual.”
So individual rights can be understood as what we can agree on as being the most basic, irreducible expectations any person can have in life without interference or fear of retribution (conceptually), and how this functions within the framework of a larger society (practically).
Individual Rights Examples
The two came together notably during the formation of the Constitution of the United States of America by the Founding Fathers, who were heavily influenced by European philosophers of the Enlightenment of the 18th Century.
They put in writing what they believed were the “inalienable” rights of Man, and in doing so, codified them into law. These first ten amendments to the Constitution, commonly known as the Bill of Rights, specify the fundamental rights due to all U.S. citizens, including the right to a freedom of speech, a freedom of religion, freedom to assemble, and access to a free press.
In 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was voted for by 48 of the then 58 member nations. Similar to the Bill of Rights, the UDHR lays out, among others, the right to “life, liberty and security of person,” and also freedom from “slavery or servitude” (notably missing from the original U.S. Constitution), for “all peoples and all nations.”
These examples are notable for what they say, but they’re also significant in what they don’t say or specify. Freedom of speech, for example, is a right to speak without interference or censorship. The implication of course is that other people have an obligation to not interfere.
This is sometimes known as a “negative” right – from the point of view of the person exercising the right, it’s a freedom from interference or harmful/preventive action by others. From the point of view of the others, it’s a “right” to inaction, i.e., to do nothing that prevents another person from exercising their right.
By contrast, a “positive” right is one that requires the action of another, to provide you with a good or service, as, for example, in the case of a court-appointed attorney should you not be able to afford one in case of an arrest.
According to some, it is this interplay of “positive” and “negative” rights that sometimes creates conflict between individual rights and group rights – one’s negative obligation to not harm others may conflict with their positive obligation to ensure public safety (as in the case of a police officer).
This distinction frequently forms the core talking points of libertarians, who place individual freedom and autonomy above all else.
Why Are Individual Rights Important?
Understanding what individual rights are, and knowing how they function in a given society, is important in at least two fundamental ways: First, as we saw, an attempt to define what individual rights are is, in essence, an attempt to define that society’s core values.
The aforementioned libertarians, for example, would only include negative rights in any constitution, as they firmly believe that any obligation one has toward another (positive rights) should arise as a result of a consensual agreement between parties.
The Founding Fathers, disillusioned by a monarch ruling over a people with absolute power, made clear that what they valued above all else was rule by the people, i.e., democracy.
As such, we can understand what the shared values of our own society are, and make informed decisions about how we choose to behave in that culture and create our own sense of meaning respective of them.
The second way in which understanding our individual rights is important is in matters of everyday legality. Knowing what our rights are, as codified in the constitution or other legal document, lets us know what is and isn’t permissible.
In the United States and most Western countries, for example, we know that we can criticize our government and leaders publicly without fear of punishment. If we were visiting North Korea, however, or Thailand, we would do well to steer clear of expressing any such sentiment, lest we risk being arrested, and likely incarcerated.
Only by understanding our rights can we behave in accordance with what is expected, and speak out against any impingement upon them by outside forces.