The Difference Between Negative Rights and Positive Rights

Here’s a very good explanation by J.P. Moreland, professor of philosophy at Biola University, from his recent interview with Hugh Hewitt:

A negative right is a right for me to be protected from harm if I try to get something for myself. A positive right would be my right to have something provided for me.

If health care is a negative right, then the state has an obligation to keep people from preventing me from getting health care and discriminating against me. If health care’s a positive right, then the state has an obligation to provide it for me.

As I read the New Testament, the government’s responsibility, and by the way, I think the Old Testament prophets say this, too, is I read the prophets in the New Testament, the government’s job is to protect negative rights, not to provide positive rights. So as a Christian, I believe in a minimal government. It’s not the government’s job to be providing the health care benefits for people. So I will be looking to see if Obama does things to minimize the role of government in culture, and to provide for as much human freedom as possible.

  • Brian Phillips

    My high school government teacher helpfully explained, “Your right to freedom of speech ends where my right to live free from offense begins.”

    I think this is a helpful illustration. Rights are not unlimited- even the government’s rights.

  • Steve


    Did your government teacher happen to explain where his right to “live free from offense” came from? It’s certainly not in the constitution and such thinking has been the source of much of our culture’s unfortunate focus on Political Correctness.

  • Brian Phillips

    I think the point wasn’t “PC”; it was more like (for example) you can scream profanity in your home if you want, but you can’t sit behind me in a movie theater and scream profanity in my ear while I try to watch a movie. That would be illegal.

    You freedom of speech isn’t an unlimited freedom. There are parameters.

  • imran naseer lashari

    positive rights are all those rights that goes beyound non interference to also impose of positive

  • David L

    Positive rights are by necessity the destruction of a negative (Primary right). If the state guarantees healthcare to all people, it must, by coercive means tax those who do not require healthcare or approve of the tax in order to pay for someone else’s service. Positive rights exist in modern culture because it is felt just to redistribute wealth from productive people to unproductive people. Furthering this argument, if the material wealth existed (As may be so in the future), each person could have the positive right to a house of not smaller than 10 rooms, a premium bicycle, a mac computer, or taken to its extreme, aesthetic reconfiguration to look as they please.

  • Khairul

    Since both negative and positive rights are passive rights, some rights are neither negative nor positive. Privileges and powers cannot be negative rights; and privileges, powers, and immunities cannot be positive rights. The (privilege-) right to enter a building, and the (power-) right to enter into a binding agreement, are neither negative nor positive.
    It is sometimes said that negative rights are easier to satisfy than positive rights. Negative rights can be respected simply by each person refraining from interfering with each other, while it may be difficult or even impossible to fulfill everyone’s positive rights if the sum of people’s claims outstrips the resources available.