The Difference between Positive and Negative Rights

We will explore a fundamental question that came up during our first meeting.  (See meeting notes.) A core disagreement between ethicists is whether all true human rights are "negative" (i.e., freedom from certain behavior, like murder, theft, rape), which usually do not conflict, or whether humans also have positive rights (i.e., the right to be given food, water, shelter) which always conflict with other humans' (esp. negative) rights.

Optional Preparation

The following material is offered to help prepare you for the discussion -- if you so desire.   Please post additional material in the Comments section below that may be useful to others.

Father James Sadowsky: "When we say that one has the right to do certain things we mean this and only this, that it would be immoral for another, alone or in combination, to stop him from doing this by the use of physical force or the threat thereof. We do not mean that any use a man makes of his property within the limits set forth is necessarily a moral use."

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nrT0kBeld3Q&list=PL6F44B18A60CA8AC3&index=1

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gXOEkj6Jz44

• Wiki overview of positive and negative rights 

• Article: The Perils of Positive Rights  

• A Study Guide by a professor

• A blog on positive vs negative rights  

• Article: Confilcting Rights Imply Phony Rights


Quick Overview of Structure of the Meeting

• We will socialize between 6:40 and 7:20. 

• We will order around 7PM

• At 7:20 the moderator will introduce the topic.

• Each person who wishes to be heard may speak without interruption for 3-5 minutes. (Please do not interrupt. Take notes of questions or ideas as they come to you. You may discuss these later.)

• The moderator will choose two listeners to ask a clarifying question of the speaker; the questions should be short questions on topic and of general group interest. These are inquisitive questions -- genuine interest in the answer clarifying a salient point for the group.  Save debate, sharing your opinion, and off topic or personal interest questions for later. 

• The next speaker will then have her time. 

• After everyone is heard, the moderator will lead a general discussion on a few themes that seemed to predominate and that had some juice, citing the perspectives of speakers who presented contrary points.

• The group then may break into smaller groups or pairs that may informally go into greater depth and debate specific questions. You may also use this time to query others privately about off-topic or personal interest subjects that may have come up that interested you.

• The moderator will post a summary of the discussion on this site's discussion page.  You may correct or extend that discussion

• Discussion is expected to be courteous, inquisitive, contemplative, and compassionate.

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  • Shawn L.

    Inspired by Jeff's after meeting comments on morality, I keep stirring it and posted my comments in Discussions (basic questions). Please voice your view and forgive me if my English makes you dizzy.

    January 17, 2014

  • Jeff M.

    Shawn, I can't find your post?

    January 14, 2014

    • Dennis

      He added it to our pre-meeting discussion
      http://www.meetup.com...­]

      January 14, 2014

    • Shawn L.

      Thank you Dennis. I now started to post in the basic question board. Hope not to confuse guys.

      January 15, 2014

  • Shawn L.

    I just posted an after meeting note in the discussion board to keep clarifying my thought and previous questions.

    1 · January 14, 2014

  • Jeff M.

    After the meeting, Shawn brought up a really pertinent idea: namely, that before rights are considered, each individual or group need to delve into their own morality which naturally evolves from generation to generation.

    January 14, 2014

  • Shawn L.

    It is a very inspiring and well organized meeting. I brought my questions to attend and took questions extracted from others thoughts back, and can't stop thinking. I certainly feel that I am learning and expressing myself as well.

    2 · January 14, 2014

  • Jeff M.

    difficult to define but a good jumping off point for other more important (I think) issues.

    1 · January 13, 2014

  • Shawn L.

    Dennies, "Brandon pointed out the difference between liberties and rights." So, what is it? Can you describe it briefly? Thanks.

    January 6, 2014

    • Dennis

      Brian, I like this a lot, with the friendly amendment that claims of rights may be valid or not valid. What do you think?

      January 8, 2014

    • Shawn L.

      Brian, thanks for the help!

      January 8, 2014

  • Dennis

    Helveticus was talking about negative (absence-of-violence) liberty when he said,
    "The free man is the man who is not in irons, nor imprisoned in a gaol, nor terrorized like a slave by the fear of punishment... it is not lack of freedom not to fly like an eagle or swim like a whale"
    -- Helvetius
    The liberty to fly like an eagle is a positive (has-the-means) liberty.

    January 8, 2014

  • Jeff M.

    Andrew, I liked your paraphrase of Goldwater: a government can infringe on your rights but that does not stop your rights from existing. I'd like to ask the group if there are basic human rights that precede governments. It seems we are the only species that even considers "rights".

    1 · January 8, 2014

    • Dennis

      Funny, I just asked Shawn Li this question.

      January 8, 2014

  • Jeff M.

    Dennis, I'll definitely be there. I've got a lot to learn.

    January 8, 2014

  • Jeff M.

    Brian, you nailed the problem by asking what the problem is! We need to agree on the definition or meaning of our terms before we can proceed. This, in itself, would go a long way in moving our discussion forward. For example, are we talking about the basic human "right" to life or political rights as proposed by the constitution?

    1 · January 7, 2014

    • Dennis

      Jeff, absolutely right. Please join us as we try to come up with a tentative definition, which will likely be the focal point for our in-person discussion.
      http://www.meetup.com...­

      1 · January 8, 2014

  • Jeff M.

    I wholeheartedly agree with Shawn Li.

    1 · January 4, 2014

  • Dennis

    On our board, here is yet my latest attempt to more clearly distinguish negative and positive rights for myself.
    http://www.meetup.com/Exploring-the-Ethics-of-Human-Freedom/messages/boards/thread/40820642/0#[masked]
    Please react and suggest amendments.

    January 7, 2014

    • Shawn L.

      Thanks, Dennies. I just posted my comments there.

      January 7, 2014

  • Dennis

    Come hungry, and order dinner and drinks. And of course be gracious to the staff. I'm trying to convince the special events coordinator that our group is worth bending their minimums for. (They want a $500 minimum bill, which we will not achieve. They're waiving it this time -- as long as no one else gives them more money for the room....)

    But let's take a little bit of time at the end to also talk about alternative places that would be good for everyone and yet give us the ability to listen to each person.

    January 7, 2014

  • Brian M.

    I opened topic on the discussion board covering this.

    January 6, 2014

    • Dennis

      Brian's board topic is at
      http://www.meetup.com...­
      You can reply in more detail, and you can click on "Track This Discussion" to be updated should others write. And of course you can write here as well... (I wish there were a way to integrate the two discussions!!)

      January 7, 2014

  • karina

    Dennis, am i the only one from the last meeting who is coming back????????????????/

    January 5, 2014

    • Dennis

      No, we have a few coming back.

      January 6, 2014

  • Dennis

    Brandon pointed out the difference between liberties and rights. I thought this description useful of positive and negative *liberties*:
    "The distinction between positive and negative liberty, made famous by Isaiah Berlin (Berlin 1990), is often thought of as a distinction between “freedom to” and “freedom from.” One has positive liberty when one has the opportunity and ability to do what one wishes (or, perhaps, what one “rationally” wishes or “ought” to wish). One has negative liberty, on the other hand, when there is an absence of external interferences to one’s doing what one wishes—specifically, when there is an absence of external interferences by other people. A person who is too sick to gather food has his negative liberty intact—no one is stopping him from gathering food—but not his positive liberty as he is unable to gather food even though he wants to do so."

    January 5, 2014

    • Dennis

      And from the same source, an explanation of negative and positive *rights*: "Negative rights are claims against others to refrain from certain kinds of actions against you. Positive rights are claims against others to perform some sort of positive action. Rights against assault, for instance, are negative rights, since they simply require others not to assault you. Welfare rights, on the other hand, are positive rights insofar as they require others to provide you with money or services. " (Source: Internet Encylcopedia of Philosophy)

      January 5, 2014

  • Shawn L.

    Thanks Dennis. Let's try it out. I would suggest keep discussions being philosophical first before bring up politics. This is not to say that politics is irrelevant. The point is that finding truth has to be the first prior to talking what's right/wrong.

    2 · January 4, 2014

  • Shawn L.

    I like this meeting structure and look forward to joining the discussions

    2 · January 2, 2014

    • Dennis

      Thank you Shawn. Please offer any ideas on improvements. We have a discussion topic about how to conduct the meetings.
      http://www.meetup.com...­
      We will iterate this structure, given the feedback, hopefully improving it each time.

      January 2, 2014

  • Jeff M.

    whew! I've got a lot of listening to do.

    January 1, 2014

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