I once saw a cartoon / infographic that attempted to explain the differences between liberals and conservatives. It had plenty of details that were subjective questions or might be said to be due to accidents of history, but it did make one very profound claim. It claimed there were two fundamentally different views of rights.

The two cases revolved around whether one held that rights were cases where:

  1. "others must observe", or
  2. "others must not interfere"

Q: Is this distinction commonly understood (and you could recommend a textbook about it), or already dismissed (and you can recommend a place where it had been deconstructed)?

The difference makes a lot of sense to me in understanding political parties. For example, racial minorities may remember the civil rights crisis as a matter of survival, and so naturally gravitate towards a view that rights are duties "others must observe." On the other hand, say a small businessperson who fears their business being regulated out of business, may gravitate towards a view that rights are duties of others "not to interfere." I think that the distinction also helps explaining why some parties are ineffective or inconsistent, say, on issues like fracking or abortion.

1 Answer 1


This distinction occurs a decent amount of times; being described with the terms 'positive' and 'negative' rights. A brief descriptor from Stanford Encyclopedia (scroll down a bit more, its at 2.1.8) sheds some light on it.

Positive rights must be enforced by other people. If I have a positive right to be fed, then others must feed me in order to meet some sort of moral obligation. Negative rights are defined by lack of action. If I have a negative right to be fed, then others cannot interfere with my eating but are not morally obligated to feed me.

Cass Sunstein and Holmes lean towards a more liberal approach towards positive rights in their short essay The Cost of Rights. I'm not too familiar with Holmes, but Sunstein has written a lot of good books concerning political applications of this type of philosophy.

Objectivist and libertarian philosophy (Ayn Rand with academic rigor, not her stories which are interesting none-the-less) would probably lean towards the idea of negative rights.

Hope this leads to some good directions!

  • 1
    Robert Nozick (for instance Anarchy, State, and Utopia) would be the go-to libertarian academic philosopher, if you're interested.
    – Dennis
    May 1, 2013 at 17:32
  • Pos/Neg rights seem a good distinction if you're answering a Randian question like, "Do I have the right to make you feed me?" But I like the "must observe / must not interfere" distinction for a question like hydrofracking. Some conservatives tout all rights as "must not interfere", and therefore say you can do as you please on your property. Prob is when you squeeze nasty hydrocarbs into neighbor's well. I say you have violated a "must observe" right. Could there be two axes to views of rights: pos/neg & "must observe"/ "must not interfere"?
    – pterandon
    May 3, 2013 at 15:56

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