Negative vs. Positive Rights
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Negative vs. Positive Rights

Philosophers and political theorists make a distinction between negative and positive rights. A negative right is a right not to be subjected to an action of another person or group; negative rights permit or oblige inaction. A positive right is a right to be subjected to an action or another person or group; positive rights permit or oblige action. In relation to the three generations of human rights, negative rights are often associated with the first generation while positive rights are associated with the second and third generations.

Negative and positive rights frequently conflict because carrying out the duties conferred by positive rights often entails infringing upon negative rights. For example, the positive right to social welfare confers a duty upon the government to provide services. Carrying out this duty entails increasing state expenditures, which would likely require raising taxes. This would however infringe upon citizens’ negative right not to have their money taken away from them. Because positive rights imply positive duties to take action whereas negative rights imply that others must only refrain from taking action, positive rights are generally harder to justify and require more complex ethical substantiation than negative rights.

Political philosopher Isaiah Berlin clarified the distinction in a famous lecture titled “Two Concepts of Liberty.” If negative liberty is concerned with the freedom to pursue one’s interests according to one’s own free will and without “interference from external bodies,” then positive liberty takes up the “degree to which individuals or groups” are able to “act autonomously” in the first place (Berlin, 1958).1 In other words, what are the conditions under which individuals shape their understandings of their own free will? What gives individuals a positive idea about how they should act, rather than negative limitations on how they may not act?

There was some disagreement about the relative importance of these two conceptions during the debates over the Universal Declaration and its Conventions.While the U.S. had adopted a welfare state model under the New Deal reforms of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, economic and social rights were not part of the American political tradition in the same way they had been for many continental European governments or the increasingly powerful Soviet Union.

American disinclination to positive liberty can be attributed in part to the ideological campaign against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The Soviets gave a high place to the collective over the individual. This meant priority for positive liberty, which they believed empowered the state to take sweeping action to provide for the well-being and “self-realization” of its citizens, sometimes at the expense of individual civil and political rights, such as the right to political participation.

Many in the West, however, viewed the Soviet position skeptically as a veiled attempt to return to the excesses of authoritarianism that the United Nations system of governance was designed to had been set up to prevent. Great injustices have often been committed for the benefit of the collective good. Berlin and others were wary of “the way in which the apparently noble ideal of freedom as self-mastery or self-realization had been twisted and distorted by the totalitarian dictators of the twentieth century” (Berlin, 1958)Insisting upon the primacy of negative rights, however, impedes the advancement of social justice by making it more difficult to justify allocating resources to help the underprivileged yet easy to justify inaction.

Ultimately, it remains an open question whether the positive and negative forms of liberty are two aspects of a common conception of rights or two distinct types of rights that are closely related without being identical.

1 Berlin 1958. To read Isaiah Berlin’s lecture, see:
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