1. What's the difference between negative rights and positive rights?

  2. Can negative rights co-exist?

  3. Can positive rights co-exist?

  4. Can negative rights co-exist with positive rights?

  • 2
    This is 4 questions Jun 28, 2017 at 16:52
  • Well it just seems like a complete answer will address all of them. I can break it up if you want but then the questions would be a little sparse and might fall under some contrived character limit.
    – Chloe
    Jun 28, 2017 at 16:59
  • 2
    It may be you would get better responses at philosophy.se
    – user9389
    Jun 28, 2017 at 18:21
  • 5
    How is this unclear what it's asking (It is too broad as worded, but clear)
    – user4012
    Jun 28, 2017 at 19:30
  • 2
    positive rights are based on coercion, negative rights are based on the freedom from coercion. Jun 30, 2017 at 12:29

6 Answers 6


According to Prof. Aeon Skoble

A positive right requires others to provide you with either a good or service.

A negative right only requires others to abstain from interfering with your actions.

They can co-exist in this way : If we believe in negative rights, we can have positive rights as long as it is grounded in a consensual arrangement.

  • 2
    Perhaps you could include some his support for the 3rd assertion, it seems non-obvious and videos and links may become unusable.
    – user9389
    Jun 28, 2017 at 18:49
  • Your third point doesn't adequately cover how positive and negative rights interact. What happens in the case where we assume the existence of a positive right? Does it mean anything for the existence of a negative right? Jun 29, 2017 at 17:07
  • The 3rd point is self evident. A consensual agreement = a contract. Legally a person can only be held to a contract if they enter into it knowingly, willingly and voluntarily. Once an individual does so he agrees to give up a negative right(s) in exchange for a positive right(s). This is the only way positive and negative rights can coexist without "violence".
    – Aporter
    Feb 27, 2020 at 0:41

The general idea is that negative rights are protections of your life, liberty, and property from harm by others. All others have to do is not act upon you or your property to ensure your negative rights. Positive rights are rights to some good thing that others are obligated to give you. For example, property rights are negative rights, you have the right to do what you want with your property and others are restricted from stealing your property or destroying it. Other rights generally seen as negative include the right to not be hurt by others, and the right to say or write whatever you want. Here's one definition from a Santa Clara University article:

Negative rights, such as the right to privacy, the right not to be killed, or the right to do what one wants with one's property, are rights that protect some form of human freedom or liberty, . These rights are called negative rights because such rights are a claim by one person that imposes a "negative" duty on all others—the duty not to interfere with a person's activities in a certain area. The right to privacy, for example, imposes on us the duty not to intrude into the private activities of a person.

Meanwhile, the article describes positive rights:

Where negative rights are "negative" in the sense that they claim for each person a zone of non-interference from others, positive rights are "positive" in the sense that they claim for each person the positive assistance of others in fulfilling basic constituents of human well-being like health and education.

An example of a positive right is the right to have healthcare. By this right, others, or more likely the government, have an obligation to provide you with some sort of basic health care. Other positive rights include the right to internet access, the right to basic nutrition, or the right to publicly funded education. Many people who love the idea of negative rights get upset about positive rights. They think protection of one's life and property is all well and good, but are skeptical that such essentials of civilized society as negative rights should be classified in the same category as the idea that government should provide an ever expanding number of "necessities" to its citizenry. For example this libertarian leaning article describes positive rights in a rather negative light

“Positive rights” trump freedom. According to this doctrine, human beings by nature owe, as a matter of enforceable obligation, part or even all of their lives to other persons. Generosity and charity thus cannot be left to individual conscience. If people have such positive rights, no one can be justified in refusing service to others; one may be conscripted to serve regardless of one’s own choices and goals.

There are critiques of this negative/positive dichotomy. One goes like this:

As a philosophical or ethical idea, the negative/positive distinction makes sense. Things get fuzzy when we take a step back and look how negative rights are actually guaranteed by government. The most basic negative right is the right to your life. This is your freedom from other people killing you. However, government has to enforce this right. They have to hire police officers to arrest those who would harm you and jailers or executioners to protect you from people who ignore the threat those officers pose. Salaries, equipment, law enforcement facilities, let alone the entire judicial system are all expensive and almost every state in history has found them indispensable for guaranteeing this negative right. Suddenly what looked like a simple right to one's life actually requires a whole bunch of other people's property to fund. If providing for one's right to life is expensive and requires funding from an external source, how is it fundamentally different from providing for someone the right to internet access? They're both nice things that take a bunch of tax dollars to provide. Maybe then, there's no fundamental difference between positive an negative rights.

  • This assumes that property is somehow more fundamental than rights. Before society can leave you alone to enjoy your property it must first decide what that property is. You think you own a car. I disagree; I think I own it. It is society that decides which of us is correct, if either. The award of that ownership is therefore a positive right which everyone else is required to give to that person. Jan 2, 2021 at 22:55

A positive right is a right to something, a claim. This may be a social (right to education) or political (right to vote) right. A negative right is a right against interference, a defense. An example is the first amendment's prohibition to restrict free speech.

In general, and regardless if negative or positive, rights can conflict with each other and should be seen as a system that has to be brought into balance or even into an optimum. Moreover, a negative right can usually be expressed as a positive right (right to free expression as prohibition to restrict free speech), but not vice versa.


Positive rights are based on coercion, negative rights are based on the freedom from coercion.

An example of negative rights is freedom of speech, you have the freedom to speak and express your opinion free from coercion or violence.

An example of a positive right is of an entitlement paid to you by the government to guarantee you a certain living standard. however coercion must be used on your behalf to collect the resources in order to pay this entitlement.

Positive rights cannot co-exist with negative rights without some degree of compromise of the negative rights.

IMO there are no such things as positive rights and they are based on the left's fundamental confusion of the difference between power and freedom. Freedom is for everyone, even the poorest person is free to live like a king, they just don't have the power to do so. Positive rights are nothing more than the political redistribution of power and as such are obviously incompatible with freedom.

  • 1
    How do we enforce the right to not be murdered? Well, we coerce a bunch of people to give up part of their money to pay people to enforce the right... Which is no different from positive rights. See lazarusL's and vicky_molokh's answers. Feb 25, 2020 at 12:11

Deceptive Simplicity

At their most basic, negative rights are described as 'do not do bad things to me', while positive rights are described as 'please do good things for me'. That simplicity breaks down once we notice the ambiguity of the word 'rights' in these comparisons . . .

Elephant in the Room: Rights-as-Ideals vs. Rights-as-Implemented

Of the many ways in which people differ in their views on rights, perhaps one of the most influential one is about whether or not Natural Rights (Rights-as-Ideals) are a real thing, or whether all rights are merely things we decide to make up and only their implementations matter. This is very much related to the difference between moral realist views and moral nihilist views.

If one doesn't believe in natural rights, one needs to only consider implementation of whatever rights one deems desirable. If one does believe in natural rights, sooner or later one still will have to answer the question, 'So if this is the Right Way For Things to Be, then what do we actually do to achieve the right state of affairs?' and hopefully put one's effort where one's mouth is.

So You Wanna Implement Rights

Here we get to the issue that protecting even negative rights doesn't happen all by itself. If one has a right to property, one is still unlikely to be able to protect one's property against a sufficiently bigger group of robbers. So protecting such rights still requires collective effort, and collective actions often benefit significantly from specialisation, which in turn raises the question of financing such protective work. There are incentives to, after reaching some scale of a community, treat the implementation of the protection of such a negative right as a positive right ('you are granted community protection').

Communities tend to have dim views of inefficiencies of patchwork jurisdictions, and of the losses to freebooters, so financing of such positive rights tends to stop being opt-in, and becomes mandatory for anyone who directly or indirectly benefits by being in a given community's turf. This of course may interfere with certain negative rights (depending on one's views of what negative rights exist and are currently applicable).

The above is just one, and rather simplified, example. Hopefully it does demonstrate how negative and positive rights interact 'in the wild' and become intertwined in societies, and how different views on which (if any) rights are real as a thing in itself can influence the interaction.


Negative rights = Natural Rights Positive rights require the violation of one group's Natural Rights in order to accomplish. Therefore, they cannot co-exist

Easy example: Marxists say everyone has a universal right to healthcare. In order to provide 1 individual with "free" healthcare, the government has to violate someone else's property rights in order to provide it. The idea that government can give anyone anything is a fallacy. Government has to steal from one group before it can give it to another group. It doesn't have anything of it's own to give.

  • 1
    This is also true for negative rights. See lazarusL's and vicky_molokh's answers. I have money "stolen" from me, to fund the police force, to stop people from murdering each other, so that I can have the right to not be murdered. Feb 25, 2020 at 12:13
  • @user253751 this logic is circular. You have the right to defend yourself or own the means to do so. This is a negative right and is just because it doesn't require violence on anyone else to accomplish. Hiring jack booted thugs with the seized fruits of other's labors is not a right. Nobody has a right to employ a mafia to force others to pay 'protection money' so they can feel safe. Positive rights = slavery and cannot coexist with negative rights. Positive rights require that people's negative rights be assaulted to accomplish.
    – Aporter
    Feb 27, 2020 at 0:33
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    So which right doesn't exist - the right to not be murdered, or the right to have the police stop people from murdering you? Feb 27, 2020 at 15:58
  • @user253751 When was the last time you ever heard of anyone not being murdered because the police saved them? In fact there's multiple court rulings that have said that the police are not obligated to protect people. Individuals have the right to protect their own life, liberty and property. Nobody has the right to have someone else do the same. If any of your real(Natural) rights are assaulted you have access to legal remedy and recourse depending on the circumstances of the "assault".
    – Aporter
    Feb 28, 2020 at 18:55
  • Catching murderers after the fact stops future murders. Feb 28, 2020 at 22:46

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