Because of the recent controversy regarding pronouns on Meta, I started thinking about this question. In general, is freedom from discrimination as protected in most modern liberal states a positive or a negative right? Are there conflicting justifications for whether rights against discrimination should be honored depending on whether they are positive or negative?

  • 2
    You need to define specifically what you mean by positive and negative right. There isn't a clear cut definition. Just about everything somebody can claim as a right could be turned into one or the other depending on chosen definition.
    – Dunk
    Oct 14 '19 at 21:50
  • @Dunk As one of the answers picked up on, I was alluding to Isaiah Berlin's theory of negative liberty. A negative right entails freedom from some form of coercion, while a positive right entails an obligation from another person to do something. The Wikipedia article for negative and positive right has a nice definition. Basically, a negative right obliges inaction from another party, while a positive right obliges action.
    – Allen Han
    Oct 14 '19 at 22:41
  • 1
    I was hoping you'd come up with something different...oh well...because I don't agree with that definition because it implies people's negative right can impose an action on other people, which makes it a positive right and negative right at the same time. Freedom from discrimination and Joseph's example are examples of that situation.
    – Dunk
    Oct 14 '19 at 22:56
  • @Dunk I watched a talk by Quentin Skinner on this topic a few years ago that you might find useful. It's titled "A Genealogy of Liberty" and it's from the Stanford University channel. Skinner defines negative liberty by whether there is coercion or not. Coercion is the fundamental concept needed for making sense of negative liberty. He goes into detail in the video. IMO, hearing a racial slur or being misgendered does not qualify as being coerced in anyway. Hence, it does not violate my negative rights. Positive rights are another story. Note that Joseph Lutz's analysis disagrees with mine.
    – Allen Han
    Oct 14 '19 at 23:10
  • Thanks, I will watch it. From what you describe, the skinner definition appears to be a much better definition. The Isaiah Berlin definition doesn't even make much sense IMO; but for some reason that is the definition that appears on the first couple of pages of a google search.
    – Dunk
    Oct 15 '19 at 21:02

The distinction between positive and negative rights is a bit misleading. A 'negative' right is merely a 'positive' right to forestall others from using their own 'positive' rights against you. Freedom from discrimination, thus, is merely the right to say: "I don't care what you think about my race, gender, sexual preference, etc; you have to treat me — for specific, delimited purposes — as equivalent to anyone else."

Going a bit deeper, this does highlight that a 'negative' right is normative (based in broad-scale social patterns) while a 'positive' right is idiosyncratic (based on personal inclinations). This is just another aspect of the intrinsic tension between the individual and the community that plays out in every social and political context. It always has to be negotiated between individuals and their surrounding community, and that is usually a contentious process. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question.

  • You say "I don't care what you think about my race, gender, sexual preference, etc; you have to treat me — for specific, delimited purposes — as equivalent to anyone else." Someone replies "I don't care" and punches you. What you want is the negative right.
    – gnasher729
    Mar 14 '20 at 23:13
  • @gnasher729: which is a positive right to prevent someone else from exercising their positive right to punch you. Framing it as a 'negative' right obscures the action and the actor. Mar 14 '20 at 23:19

It's negative in the sense that Isaiah Berlin makes the distinction between removing hindrances such as chains, and, on the other hand, providing the means to achieve something, such as Basic Income proposes to do, as a positive freedom from wants (such as simple hunger or housing requirements under the notion that the Pursuit of Happiness is worthless, and therefore denied, without the necessities of life).

The larger issues you raise fall under the harm Principle of JS Mill. A claim to being harmed, e.g., by second-hand smoke, can limit the rights of others (to smoke). Being free from smoke is a negative freedom. Something is removed. In the culture wars, when someone is called a "snowflake," it means they are put down as being oversensitive. Thus, that real harm is being done to them is denied. On the other hand, most anyone who claims to be the victim of a wrong will deny that they are oversensitive, and insist they have a valid claim to the negative freedom. From so-called "hate speech" for example.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.