Individual and Group Rights

Read this article for an introduction to the idea of individual versus group rights. What are the examples provided here? Do you think the group rights identified here do more to strengthen or weaken individual rights? Do you think the rights discussed here are universal or relative?

Group rights, also known as collective rights, are rights held by a group qua a group rather than by its members severally; in contrast, individual rights are rights held by individual people; even if they are group-differentiated, which most rights are, they remain individual rights if the right-holders are the individuals themselves. Group rights have historically been used both to infringe upon and to facilitate individual rights, and the concept remains controversial.

Organizational Group Rights

Besides the rights of groups based upon the immutable characteristics of their individual members, other group rights cater toward organizational persons, including nation-states, trade unions, corporations, trade associations, chambers of commerce, specific ethnic groups, political parties. Such organizations are accorded rights which are particular to their specifically-stated functions and their capacities to speak on behalf of their members, i.e. the capacity of the corporation to speak to the government on behalf of all individual customers or employees or the capacity of the trade union to negotiate for benefits with employers on behalf of all workers in a company.


In the political views of classical liberals and some right-libertarians, the role of the government is solely to identify, protect, and enforce the natural rights of the individual while attempting to assure just remedies for transgressions. Liberal governments that respect individual rights often provide for systemic controls that protect individual rights such as a system of due process in criminal justice.

Without certain collective rights, for example, a cardinal principle in international law, enshrined in Chapter I Article I of the United Nations Charter, secures the right of "self-determination of peoples." Without this group right, the people have no means or authority to assert the individual rights that self-determination enables the establishment of. If people are unable to determine their collective future, they are certainly unable to assert or ensure their individual rights, future and freedoms. In contrast to individual-collective dichotomy proposed by Peterson and contemporaries, critics suggest that both are necessarily connected and intertwined, rejecting the assertion that they exist in a mutually exclusive relationship.

Ayn Rand, developer of the philosophy of objectivism, asserted that a group, as such, has no rights. She maintained that only an individual can possess rights, and therefore the expression "individual rights" is a redundancy, while the expression "collective rights" is a contradiction in terms. In this view, a person can neither acquire new rights by joining a group nor lose the rights which he does possess. Man can be in a group without want or the group minority, without rights. According to this philosophy, individual rights are not subject to a public vote, a majority has no right to vote away the rights of a minority, the political function of rights is precisely to protect minorities from the will of majorities, and the smallest minority on earth is the individual.

Rand offers several unique perspectives on rights, holding that

1. Ontologically, rights are neither attributes nor conventions but principles of morality, having, therefore, the same epistemic status as any other moral principle;

2. Rights "define and sanction man's freedom of action";

3. As protectors of freedom of action, rights do not mean "entitlements" to be supplied with any goods or services;

4. "Man's rights can be violated only by the use of physical force. It is only by means of physical force that one man can deprive another of his life, or enslave him, or rob him, or prevent him from pursuing his own goals, or compel him to act against his own rational judgment." and

5. Rights derive from the mind's needs: for an organism that survives by means of reason, freedom is a survival-requirement:initiated force negates or paralyzes the thinking mind. Rand's overall argument is that rights protect freedom in order to protect reason. "Force and mind are opposites."

Adam Smith, in 1776 in his book An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, describes the right of each successive generation, as a group, collectively, to the earth and all the earth possesses. The Declaration of Independence states several group, or collective, rights of the people as well as the states, for example the Right of the People: "whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it" and the right of the States: "... as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do."

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Last modified: Wednesday, September 8, 2021, 11:46 AM