Individual and group rights

Group rights, also known as collective rights, are rights held by a group qua group rather than by its members severally;[1] 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.[2] Group rights have historically been used both to infringe upon and to facilitate individual rights, and the concept remains controversial.[3]


In Western discourse, individual rights are often associated with political and economic freedom, whereas group rights are associated with social control. This is because in the West the establishment of individual rights is associated with equality before the law and protection from the state. Examples of this are the Magna Carta, in which the English King accepted that his will could be bound by the law and certain rights of the King's subjects were explicitly protected.

By contrast, much of the recent political discourse on individual rights in the People's Republic of China, particularly with respect to due process rights and rule of law, has focused on how protection of individual rights actually makes social control by the government more effective. For example, it has been argued that the people are less likely to violate the law if they believe that the legal system is likely to punish them if they actually violated the law and not punish them if they did not violate the law. By contrast, if the legal system is arbitrary then an individual has no incentive to actually follow the law.

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, 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 United States, the Constitution outlines individual rights within the Bill of Rights. In Canada, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms serves the same function. One of the key differences between the two documents is that some rights in the Canadian Charter can be overridden by governments if they explicitly do so according to Section 33 of the Charter.[4] In practice, the Quebec government used the provision frequently in the early 1980s as a protest, and since then to maintain a ban on non-French public signs for five years. The government of Saskatchewan has used it for back-to-work legislation, and the government of Alberta sought to use it to define marriage as strictly heterosexual.[5]


In the minarchist 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. Collectivist states are generally considered to be oppressive by such classical liberals and libertarians precisely because they do not respect individual rights.

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.[6] 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,";[7] 3. as protectors of freedom of action, rights do not mean "entitlements" to be supplied with any goods or services;[8] 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."[9] 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."[10]

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.[11] 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."

See also

Further reading


  1. "Group Rights (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)". 2008-09-22. Retrieved 2015-03-30.
  2. Jones (2010), p. 39ss
  3. Bisaz (2012), pp. 7–12
  4. "Constitution Acts, 1867 to 1982". Retrieved 2015-03-30.
  5. "Library of Parliament Research Publications". Retrieved 2015-03-30.
  6. "Individual Rights – Ayn Rand Lexicon". Retrieved 2015-03-30.
  7. Rand (1964), p. 110
  8. Rand (1964), pp. 110, 113–17
  9. Rand (1964), p. 126
  10. Rand (1957), p. 1023
  11. Stewart (1811), pp. 85–86


  • Bisaz, Corsin (2012). The Concept of Group Rights in International Law. Groups as Contested Right-Holders, Subjects and Legal Persons. The Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights Library. 41. Leiden/Boston: Martinus Nijhoff. ISBN 978-9004-22870-2. 
  • Jones, Peter (2010). "Cultures, group rights, and group-differentiated rights". In Maria Dimova-Cookson & Peter M. R. Stirk. Multiculturalism and Moral Conflict. Routledge Innovations in Political Theory. 35. New York: Routledge. pp. 38–57. ISBN 0-415-46615-6. 
  • Rand, Ayn (1957). Atlas Shrugged. New York. 
  • Rand, Ayn (1964). The Virtue of Selfishness. New York. 
  • Stewart, Dugald (1811). The Works of Adam Smith. 3. London. 

External links

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