This word "right" is used in various senses:

  • Sometimes it signifies a law, as when we say that natural right requires us to keep our promises, or that it commands restitution, or that it forbids murder. In the English language it is seldom used in this sense.
  • It sometimes means that quality in our actions by which they are denominated just ones. This is usually denominated rectitude.
  • It is that quality in a person by which he can do certain actions, or possess certain things which belong to him by virtue of some title. In this sense, we use it when we say that a man has a right to his estate or a right to defend himself.

In this latter sense alone, this word will be here considered. Right is the correlative of duty, for, wherever one has a right due to him, some other must owe him a duty.

Perfect Versus Imperfect Rights

Rights are perfect and imperfect. When the things which we have a right to possess or the actions we have a right to do, are or may be fixed and determinate, the right is a perfect one; but when the thing or the actions are vague and indeterminate, the right is an imperfect one. If a person demands their property, which is withheld from them, the right that supports their demand is a perfect one; because the thing demanded is, or may be fixed and determinate. In cases where a low income person requests relief from those from whom they have reason to expect it, the right, which supports their petition, it is an imperfect one; because the relief which they expect, is a vague indeterminate, thing.

Absolute and Qualified

Rights are also absolute and qualified. A person has an absolute right to recover property which belongs to them. An agent has a qualified right to recover such property, when it had been entrusted to their care, and which has been unlawfully taken out of their possession.

Natural and Civil Rights

Rights related to property may also be divided into natural and civil rights. All rights in which a person has received from nature have been modified and acquired anew from the civil law, it is more proper, when considering their object, to divide them into political and civil rights.

Political Rights

Political rights consist in the power to participate, directly or indirectly, in the establishment or management of government. These political rights are fixed by the constitution. Every citizen has the right of voting for public officers, and of being elected; these are the political rights which the humblest citizen possesses.

Civil Rights

Civil rights are those which have no relation to the establishment, support, or management of the government. These consist in the power of acquiring and enjoying property, of exercising the paternal and marital powers, and the like. It will be observed that every one, unless deprived of them by a sentence of civil death, is in the enjoyment of his civil rights, which is not the case with political rights; for an alien, for example, has no political, although in the full enjoyment of their civil rights.

Absolute and Relative Rights

These latter rights are divided into absolute and relative. The absolute rights of mankind may be reduced to three principal or primary articles:

  • The right of personal security, which consists in a person's legal and uninterrupted enjoyment of his life, his limbs, his body, his health, and his reputation.
  • The right of personal liberty, which consists in the power of locomotion, of changing situation, or removing one's person to whatsoever place one's inclination may direct, without any restraint, unless by due course of law.
  • The right of property, which consists in the free use, enjoyment, and disposal of all his acquisitions, without any control or diminution, save only by the laws of the land.

The relative rights are public or private: the first are those which subsist between the people and the government, as the right of protection on the part of the people, and the right of allegiance which is due by the people to the government; the second are the reciprocal rights of husband and wife, parent and child, guardian and ward, and master and servant.

Rights are also divided into legal and equitable. The former are those where the party has the legal title to a thing, and in that case, his remedy for an infringement of it, is by an action in a court of law. Although the person holding the legal title may have no actual interest, but hold only as trustee, the suit must be in his name, and not in general, in that of the cestui que trust. The latter, or equitable rights, are those which may be enforced in a court of equity by the cestui que trust.