7.1.3 ‘Positive/benefit rights’ and ‘negative/freedom rights’

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Unit 7 Contents


(iii)           Two main categories of rights

In addition to the two clarifications on the last screen, it makes sense at the outset to get a good understanding of the following two categories of rights (whether moral or legal rights):

‘benefit rights’          and          ‘freedom rights’.

It is worth spending a bit more time on this distinction than on the previous two points.  What’s at stake here is what kind of thing any particular right secures for us.

Food, clothing, shelter, medical care – these are concrete things, goods or services, that people need to obtain, one way or another.  The affirmation that people have a right to such things means that they have a right to provision of such benefits.

Just in case you jump to a conclusion that this means, if such rights are to be upheld, that government that must directly provide those things, let me say immediately that this doesn’t follow.  We are not talking here about ‘state benefits’ as such, even though sometimes government does have a duty to provide such things.

Rather, we are talking about benefits in a broader sense – goods and services that people need to get hold of, whether through growing them, buying them, receiving them as gifts, or accessing state provision.  They can be called ‘benefit rights’ because what is involved in them being upheld is that people obtain a specific benefit.1

For the second category, namely ‘freedom rights’, people don’t need to obtain any particular goods or services.  Rather, they need to be left alone – as, for example, for freedom of speech, freedom of association and freedom of religion.  The affirmation that people have a right to these things means that they have a right not to be interfered with.  In other words, they have a right to be left free in relation to, respectively, what they say, who they associate with, and how they practise religion.

A more technical label for ‘freedom rights’ is ‘immunities’.  We can say that when people have a certain freedom right, for example freedom of speech, they should be immune from interference in what they say.  ‘Immunity’ in this sense is a legal term.

What I am referring to as ‘benefit rights’ are also known as ‘positive rights’.  This is because something needs positively to be done for them to be upheld. Correspondingly, ‘freedom rights’ are known as ‘negative rights’, because upholding them requires not acting – non-interference.  Hence the title of this screen is ‘Positive/benefit rights’ and ‘negative/freedom rights’.2



Below is a list of some things that are widely accepted to be human rights.  For the purpose of this exercise, assume that there is indeed a human right to all the things in the list, even if you find you doubt whether this is so for some of them.

It’s a fairly random list, in the sense that it’s in no particular order and certainly isn’t complete.

Which of the following fit into the category of ‘positive/benefit rights’ and which into that of ‘negative/freedom rights’?

A right…   not to be enslaved

to bodily integrity

to marry or not marry

to a minimum wage

to one day in seven off work, or the equivalent

to life

to education

not to be imprisoned without due process of law

to a fair trial

to health care

to social security if out of work

to form a trade union

not to be sacked for no good reason

to stand for political office in an election

to ownership of property




I have introduced this distinction between ‘benefit rights’ and ‘freedom rights’ at the start of this unit for two reasons.

The first is simply that we need to know what we’re talking about.  In other words, it’s very useful to keep this distinction in mind when are encountering claims about rights, whether in statements of CST or anywhere else.  If someone says, ‘I’ve got a right to x’, or ‘People’s right to y must be respected’, we can get some initial clarity about what they mean by working out whether they’re talking about a freedom right or a benefit right.

The second reason is more significant for understanding CST.  In the quotation from Pacem in Terris on the previous screen, Pope John began by saying that the human person has ‘the right to life’.  He continued, apparently in immediate explanation, that the person has “the right to bodily integrity and to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest…” (#11).

There is something extremely interesting and important about how he speaks here.  The first thing he lists is a freedom right, bodily integrity.  But he then lists several benefit rights.  The significance of this is that Catholic teaching does not privilege either benefit rights or freedom rights, which some other views of rights tend to do.  It is especially striking that, after bodily integrity, Pope John list some benefit rights that fall into a sub-category, ‘economic rights’ – that is rights to obtain goods which have economic value and require monetary cost to guarantee to people.

From the outset of Pacem in Terris, CST’s ‘classic text’ about rights, the Church insists that people really do have rights to these things.  Moreover, they are listed before some other rights that have tended to be much more emphasised in Western liberal societies, notably such basic freedom rights as of speech, belief, association, movement and property.

Indeed John XXIII refers, both here and at some other points, to benefit and freedom rights in the same breath.  This is no bad thing.  It prevents any interpretation of CST as in principle regarding either of these categories of rights as the really important one.  As on so many other issues, this makes CST stand out from views associated with economic liberalism, in which there has often been a denial that benefit rights really are rights, and from views on the political left, especially Marxism, in which there has often been a playing down of the importance of freedom rights.

So you now know what ‘freedom rights’ and ‘benefit rights’ are and that CST strongly endorses both.


End of 7.1.3

Go to 7.1.4 Your study so far and your experience

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  1. On ‘benefit rights’ in this sense, see Oswald Hanfling, ‘Rights and Human Rights’, in Anthony O’Hear (ed.), Political Philosophy (Cambridge University Press, 2007), 57-94, especially 63-67. 

  2. “The holder of a negative right is entitled to non-interference, while the holder of a positive right is entitled to provision of some good or service. A right against assault is a classic example of a negative right, while a right to welfare assistance is a prototypical positive right” (s.2.1.8 in L. Wenar, ‘Rights’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2011/entries/rights/>, accessed 28 Apr. 2014.)  I shall generally refer to ‘freedom rights’ and ‘benefit rights’, rather than negative and positive rights’, as the former terms are more clearly descriptive of the rights in view.  Freedom rights are also sometimes called ‘non-interference rights’ (for example by Hanfling in ‘Rights and Human Rights’).  Benefit rights are sometimes known as ‘recipient rights’ because such rights are to receive something.  More complex description also contrasts passive and active rights, and this distinction can be mapped on to Hohfeld’s classic fourfold analysis of legal rights and duties. See Wenar as just cited.