The idea of rights seems to be strongly, if not inextricably, connected to the idea of duties. As far as I remember in philosophy of law this is referred to as "reciprocity". If I must do something, then there must be somebody I owe that action to. Thanks to our legal system, if there's somebody violating my rights by their deeds I can claim my right instead of poking their eyes out or throwing in the towel. I know that this is a very trivial summary, but it's probably enough.

Today I was impudent enough to be riding my bike in the pedestrian zone. I was very slow and very careful. I wouldn't risk getting in trouble by being reckless. A woman I didn't even notice for she was nowhere near me, felt, so I must assume, bothered, for she shouted something about me not being allowed to ride my bike because of the sign that said so.

Now here's my trivial question: If I am not allowed to ride my bike in the pedestrian zone, which is a negative duty, whose right to what did I violate by not causing any trouble while still riding my bike? This might sound silly, but I really don't see it. Do the pedestrians have a right to not see anyone riding a bike? Of course they do have a right to not being hurt by cyclists, but they have that right everywhere, not just in the pedestrian zone, and not only cyclists have the duty to not harm pedestrians, so I don't see of which duty, corresponding to which right, that sign should have reminded me of. I hope there are other answers to this question than a reminder of common sense, the chance of causing or prevention of an accident or rule utilitarianism. Help me out?

2 Answers 2


I would say that in practise, there are formal (i.e. legal) rights, and informal (i.e. social conventional) rights. The phrase "What gives you the right to [...]?" is often used in the context of interpersonal interaction in circumstances which only the most repressive regimes feel the need to express opinions on; but we certainly acknowledge that these statements have a fairly clear meaning, even if we happen to disagree whether or not one has "a right" to do something in some social context.

In the case of your cycling incident, your negative duty is put in place to protect an expectation of the pedestrians: that their fellow sidewalk-travellers all move with a certain expected range (gathered through accumulated experience) of movements, and in particular at certain speeds, turning radii, and dexterity or lack of dexterity. Someone who abruptly starts running at great speed through a crowd, who turn at sharp right angles to cut people off, or who are unwilling to negotiate a way to pass someone else on the pavement as they approach from opposite directions would similarly frustrate other pedestrians; the difference is that this behaviour is not typically expected. Therefore people who are walking on the sidewalk can make intelligent (if simple) decisions about how to move and act. But a cyclist, moving however slowly, could defy people's expectations at a moment's notice, and all the easier by virtue of the bicycle being a very efficient machine for human-powered movement.

The informal right which is protected by your negative duty on the sidewalk is the personal physical integrity of pedestrians qua pedestrians. While defying it does not necessarily emperil that right (as you have observed), in this case the boundary between your formal rights as a cyclist and their informal rights as pedestrians have been set at some significant distance apart, the better to protect those informal rights.

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    @iphigenie: I've had occasion to consider precisely this question myself, at some length. ;-) Jan 11, 2013 at 17:12

In legal theory there are other normative concepts besides those of right and duty (or obligation), these typically include also prohibitions and permissions. A right is considered a permission on a party implying a duty (or obligation) to another party. In the case you mention you do not violate a right but you violate a prohibition (also understood as a negative duty). In some view of legal theory there is not need to have beneficiary to a duty/obligation/prohibition, all one needs is to have an authority with the power to create a norm.

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    Could you maybe add some references? "Some views of legal theory" is not exactly detailed...
    – iphigenie
    Jan 12, 2013 at 14:17

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