In the ethical practice of public relations, the practitioner will encounter questions of rights: how to respect the rights of clients, employees, organizations; how to manage and reconcile conflicts

While in modern democracies the language of rights is commonplace, this is a relatively recent phenomenon. With the rise of social contract theory, espoused by Thomas Hobbes and John Locke many came to accept that monarchs no longer ruled by divine right; that citizens willingly invested the ruler with authority.
This evolution was fundamental in that it asserts not only the political primacy of the citizen but also his moral primacy: the notion that the citizen possesses certain rights

Defining Rights

Rights may be broadly categorized as legal rights and moral rights. The state may legally enshrine a citizen’s right not to be assaulted by another however, even in the absence of any legal agent the citizen may claim a moral right to physical security. Brenda Almond suggests that there are moral rights that are not enforceable in law, such as the right to receive gratitude, or the right to one’s own opinion
[3]. W.D. Ross distinguished between contractual rights and natural rights, which he described as rights without corresponding duties[4]

Wesley Hohfeld defined four kinds of rights
§ Claim rights are enforceable rights that create a correlative duty on others to act (or refrain from acting). If someone has a claim right to occupy property which she has leased, the lessor may be said to have a corresponding duty to make habitable property available.
§ Privileges or liberties are the absence of duty to refrain from action. Thus the citizen may enjoy the freedom to stroll unimpeded along a public thoroughfare. Of course other citizens may have similar freedoms; that a crowd may develop that would slow progress suggests these liberties are of a lower order than claim rights.
§ Power or authority rights assert that the rights of one may be limited by the authority of another: the policeman who forces the citizen to detour from her intended route has limited her privilege and created an obligation for compliance.
§ Immunity rights are the absence of duty to another possessing the power to alter those rights. Where no anti-smoking bylaw exists, for example, a smoker is immune to any sanction from a municipal authority to force her to ‘butt out’.

Joel Feinberg attempted refine the classification of rights, establishing three corresponding groupings that stressed the related duties that flowed from the exercise of those rights
[6]. In personam rights are rights that are held against specific persons (for example contract rights) while in rem rights are those that are held against people generally (such as the right not to be assaulted). Positive rights imply one’s right to the positive action of others (for example, an employee’s right to be paid on time) while negative rights suggests the right to the non-action of others. (No one has the right to intrude on another’s property, for example, without permission). Finally, Feinberg detailed active rights, that is, the right to act freely in most human affairs without unreasonable interference. Conversely, passive rights imply the right not to be negatively affected by the unwanted actions of others. These categories of rights are not mutually exclusive. For example, Feinberg points out that most in rem rights are negative as well as passive though there are exceptions, such as the duty of care most of people expect from others.

Limitations on rights

Peter Singer notes that one essential feature of rights is that they can be waived by the rights bearer[7]. While someone may assert his right to privacy, he gives up that right to a degree when he posts video highlights of his life online. This suggests that only persons with the capacity of choice are entitled to rights. However Almond suggests that if rights are often considered to be accompanied by a corresponding duty, then rights would belong to any entity capable of benefiting from them[8]. That said, she asserts that human agency is essential in the definition of rights: while any human or even an animal may be argued to have a right to health, there is no corresponding duty when the threat to health comes from natural conditions outside human control.


Parsons, P.J. (2008). Ethics in public relations: A guide to best practice (2nd ed.). London: Kogan Page
[2] Waluchow, W.J. (2003). The Dimensions of Ethics: An Introduction to Ethical Theory. Peterborough ON: Broadview Press
[3] Almond, B. (1991). Rights. In Singer, P. (ed.), A Companion to Ethics, pp. 259-269. Oxford: Blackwell
[4] Ross, W.D. (1930). The right and the good. Oxford: Clarendon Press
[5] Lazarev, N. (2005). Hohfeld’s Analysis of Rights: An Essential Approach to a Conceptual and Practical Understanding of the Nature of Rights. Retrieved on October 1, 2009 from the Website, Murdoch University Electronic Journal of Law: http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/journals/MurUEJL/2005/9.html
[6] Feinberg, J. (1966). Duties, rights, and claims. American Philosophical Quarterly, 3(2), 137-144.
[7] Singer, P. (1993). Practical ethics (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
[8] Almond, op.cit.