These refer to freedoms and entitlements allowed or owed to citizens.  In the US, the Constitution and the first ten amendments that we call the “Bill of Rights” are often what people often think of when they hear the term “rights”, as well as laws like the Civil Rights Acts, and judicial decisions (e.g. Miranda)  that have further enumerated the rights accorded by the Constitution.  The Bill of Rights outlines specific rights such as speech and assembly, free exercise of religion, the right to trial by an impartial jury, the right to bear arms, and the right to be free of unreasonable search and seizure.  Later Constitutional amendments provide additional rights e,g,  to vote (for African Americans, for women) and freedoms (from self incrimination, from “takings” without due process, to equal protection of the law.)   

There has always been intense disagreement on the meaning, extent and nature of these rights and the appropriateness and legitimacy of judicial and legislative enumerations of rights not explicitly described in the Constitution.   Whereas progressive thinkers advocate for labor rights, LGBT rights, reproductive rights, disability rights, patient rights, prisoners'/accused’s rights, etc. arguing that they legitimately derive from the Constitution and Bill of Rights, conservatives are more inclined to insist on fealty to the Constitution’s plain language, and to see a more bounded view of “natural rights.” For some, the sole rights worthy of defense are encompassed by the protection of life, liberty and property.  Others believe the US should recognize a set of rights going well beyond that, such as the economic, social and cultural rights set out in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, e.g. to education, housing, and health.

Which behaviors are included as "rights" thus constitutes an ongoing political topic of importance.

More recently liberals are calling more attention to the notion of privilege that they believe people in certain various demographic groups (like white men) possess by virtue of having their rights respected when others’ are not.  Conservatives consistently call for more attention to the connection between rights and responsibilities  expressing concern that undue focus is given to rights, rather than responsibilities, to the detriment of both those asserting rights (e.g., it fosters a victim mindset that is disempowering) and society (e.g. it creates dependent classes unwilling and unable to improve their condition.)


Mary Jacksteit

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