The Problem of Positive Rights and Their Corresponding Duties

  • Enya Leger
Keywords: Positive rights, negative rights, duties, subsistence, non-interference


In an exploration of whether positive rights impose any special burden on individuals, this paper first surveys the literature on the distinction between positive rights and negative rights. Traditionally, positive rights have been regarded as those entitling individuals to goods and services such as food and health care, while negative rights pertain to non-interference. Initially it appears that negative rights are less burdensome, because respecting these rights seems to not require any activity on the part of others. In contrast, respecting positive rights to goods and services seem to have a more direct impact on individuals, as the attainment of goods and services is dependent on the labour of others. However, I argue in this paper that in practice there is no significant difference in how negative and positive rights are implemented. Both types of rights have negative and positive duties corresponding to them, or they both contain a demand for non-interference as well as a demand for something to be provided. Furthermore, I argue that both individuals and states are duty-bearers for rights and that, while negative duties are universal, only states bear the responsibility for fulfilling the positive duties attached to both negative and positive rights. Consequently, positive rights are no more onerous for individuals than are negative rights because all that is required of them is noninterference.