What Are Legal Rights?


Law is a system of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. The precise definition of “law” is a matter of debate, but it generally includes the creation of legal documents, the establishment of legal standards and practices, and the resolution of legal disputes in court.

A legal right is a normative category that includes claims, privileges, powers, and immunities. This category can manifest in two ways: rights in personam or in rem (MacCormick 1982: 163; Raz 1994: 258-269) and is typically associated with the law of obligations (contracts, trusts, and parts of torts).

Legal rights can be distinguished from rights found in normative systems of non-legal institutions by features that derive from the legal normativity of law rather than the factual basis of those systems. These include law’s relative social importance, its claim to supremacy over other normative systems under its jurisdiction, the scope of activities that fall under law’s domain, and the often greater use of remedies, sanctions, and violence.

Some legal rights also exhibit a justificatory structure of conditioned vesting, which varies depending on the factual context. For example, rights can be conditioned on the existence of a vested duty to give effect to that right, and those duties are vested only when they are triggered (Raz 1970: 226).

In a similar vein, some rights are conditioned on the existence of certain conditions, such as the ability to make a valid complaint or an enforceable court order to enforce a particular right, and those conditions are vested only when those conditions are met. The underlying reason for these conditions is that, once they are triggered, the legal obligations correlating to those conditions are vested in the law.

Finally, some rights are conditioned on other factors, such as the nature of the legal obligation to which they relate, and those conditions are vested only once they are met (Raz 1970: 216). These constraints can help orient people towards what they can reasonably expect from a given right.

As such, some rights can arguably be viewed as securing a measure of the common good (Finnis 2011: 2010-218). For instance, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights secures the right to liberty and life, yet those rights may also be subject to limitations for reasons of securing the rights of others or general welfare.

One might argue that such limits on rights securing the common good are not necessarily negative, but that they can and do represent the result of conflicting values. These limitations can shackle the criminal justice system, sometimes resulting in less effective law enforcement.

This is a complex and controversial question that deserves further investigation. The moral justification of legal rights is a highly contentious topic, and the answer to this question is not clear-cut. The most common view is that rights are not morally justified unless they further some value or function, such as the interests, choice, agency, or dignity of right-holders.

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