Monthly Archives: November 2010

Should all Citizens Enjoy Exactly the Same Rights?

Human rights are a topic constantly within the political agenda: ‘What are rights?’, ‘Who deserves rights?’ and ‘What rights do these people deserve (if any)?’ Rights always appear in some form and have become a powerful weapon for political movements to get across arguments or refute arguments of others. It is commonly held that it is citizens who deserve rights, provided they fulfil their obligations to the state, but even then citizens should not claim for equal rights as this only brings about inequalities of others kinds undermining the democratic ideal where all citizens are first-class citizens.

The idea of rights goes back to the seventeenth century when Locke proposed that every human is born with three God-given privileges. These ‘natural rights’ are the things vital to man if he/she is to live a basic life with enough freedom to carry out their daily function; the three natural rights, Locke claimed, are those of “life, liberty and estate”[1]. More recently rights have expanded covering a whole range of things, which Hohfield claims can be sorted into four groups: liberties, claim-rights, legal powers and immunities[2]. Liberties are the things we can freely do as we have no restriction against doing it. Claim-rights are the things others have a duty to provide for us. Legal powers are the things that allow us to do something, and finally immunities are the things that protect us from another’s power to be used against us. Many of these rights are written down as a constitution, including The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), drafted up by the United Nations (UN) in 1948.

Citizens are defined as members of a political community, such as a state, who hold entitlements to rights provided by the state, although citizens only become entitled to rights by fulfilling obligations to the state. Such obligations include swearing loyalty to the community, defending it and paying taxes in order to maintain resources necessary to fund their rights. Just as the concept of rights has spread out in recent debates so too as the concept of citizenship, we are starting to see a movement from social citizenship and active citizenship, which depend on state reliance and self-reliance respectively, towards universal citizenship where we become ‘citizens of the world’. The first step towards this can be seen by the establishment of, the failed, League of Nations bringing nations together as one united majority (The League) comprising of numerous autonomous minority communities (France, Britain .etc). Following this we have the European Union (EU) and also the UN which aims to bring the world together as a single united community.

Locke’s set of natural rights make a good starting point for the argument for equal rights since without them citizenship would be meaningless, after all without life there would be no citizens, without freedom the ability to carry out our obligations would become impossible, for example without the freedom to hold property taxes could not be paid since money is a form of property. Therefore they are the most basic of rights that all citizens must have equal claim to in order to protect their status as a citizen. From this position we may build upon what extra rights citizens deserve, turning to the UDHR for support. Article one declares that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights…”,[3] this article entitles us to equality, freedom and conscience. This is backed by the second article, which begins “Everyone is entitled to all the rights…set forth in this declaration…”[4] and all subsequent articles begin with the single word ‘everyone’ meaning that it applies to all citizens regardless of what community they are a citizen of, or their circumstance. Miller supports the idea of equal rights for all citizens in stating that there are two types of rights: natural rights, as defined by Locke, and rights entitled to all citizens, Miller also claims that equal rights are essential for global justice, or to quote him exactly “…global justice involves respecting and protecting the human rights of people everywhere…”[5] without global justice economic inequality and exploitation will prosper. Thus equal rights are necessary for justice and freedom, two things a state ought to be founded upon if it is to be legitimate. Cord takes this point a step further in claiming that equal rights are an “ethical standard” [6] that the state must be based upon otherwise it decays into violence, war, alienation and inequality through its permissiveness of individual morality. Wolff argues that in order to meet this ethical standard then the state must become politically emancipated ensuring that all are equal, once all are seen as equal rights become able to be given out equally. We can see political emancipation at work by the rising of minority groups over the previous couple of centuries. The Suffragette and Suffragist movements in the UK led to women being giving the same political rights as men enabling them to fulfil their duty to the state and demand full citizenship, as opposed to being second-class citizens. Also since the introduction of the Equal Rights for People with Disabilities Law (1998) (ERPDL) in Israel, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (1991) equal rights concerning accessibility, employment and health et cetera have been granted to those with genuine disabilities enabling them to become first-class citizens.

Even though citizens enjoying equal rights sounds like a good idea the notion does have its critics. First is Wolff’s argument that without equality factions will form within the community, which will try to rise up against others leading to the development of a hierarchy, thus equal rights requires a classless society to prevent such an occurance. This could be taken to mean that Wolff is suggesting that states should move towards communism as opposed to capitalist democracies as under communism all citizens are viewed as holding equal power, status and wealth, although communism, in theory, works in provided a classless state in practice it fails as the state still requires someone to rise up and oversee all runs smoothly ensuring equality remains within, hence we end up with a state that is one where “all… are equal, but some are more equal than others”[7]. Thus the communist notion despite looking like a golden stairway to equality is merely an illusion disguising a fall into unequal rights. Wolff also argues against the previous argument concerning political emancipation by referring to Marx who argues that “a state can liberate itself from a limitation without being truly free of it”[8] meaning that even though political emancipation might bring about equality it fails to eliminate prejudice, which can lead to inequality via discrimination since our prejudice against certain minority groups will urge us to oppress their claim to the same liberties we have, thus political emancipation does not ensure equal rights. Wolff then claims that liberalism produces an illusion of equality so only the illusion of equal rights can exist within it, therefore so long as inequality is still among the citizens then so shall unequal rights. Socialists support, to some degree, Wolff’s argument about the liberalists as they propose that rights only exist to secure inequality amongst citizens since rights only protect the interests of the ruling classes, for example the right to property is only a way to ensure that the wealthy remain so at the expense of the poorer second-class citizens. This may mean that socialists propose that citizens should hold no rights, although this is doubtful, or that the oppressed factions should be given special rights allowing them to be treated in the same way as their oppressors. The socialist argument is supported by utilitarians, Marxists and feminists who all argue that rights secure inequalities allowing certain groups to become “more equal than others”[9], so the proletariat, women, ethnic minorities et cetera all require special rights to claim equal status against those more equal than themselves, therefore all people are not equal, hence equal rights is defeated. Not only is the idea defeated on the basis that all citizens are not equal but it will also create hierarchical division within the community creating inequality enforcing the idea that all citizens are not equal.

There is also the question as to which citizens deserve their claim to rights? One answer is only those who fulfil their obligations deserve to be rewarded in such way, one piece of research done by Findler and Vilchinsky found that following the introduction of the ERPDL in Israel the Israeli people still held the view that only army veterans should be entitled to the special rights decreed by the new law as they had fulfilled their obligation of defending the state through their military service.

To conclude citizens should be entitled to rights, and that there are some rights such as natural rights and those set within the UDHR that all citizens should be given equally without question. However giving all citizens exactly the same rights and equal claim to them will only result in the idea of equality turning in on itself as it will bring about class divisions making some citizens ‘second-class’, thus claims for special rights for groups that would otherwise become second or even third class citizens is fully justifiable. Therefore not all citizens should enjoy exactly the same rights.


  • Cord. S. B, Equal Rights: A Provable Moral Standard, American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Vol. 38, No. 1,  pp. 73-81Heywood. A, Political Theory an Introduction (Third Edition), Macmillan, 2004
  • Findler. L & Vilchinksy. N, Attitudes Toward Israel’s Equal Rights for People With Disabilities Law: A Multiperspective Approach, Rehabilitation Psychology, Vol. 49, No. 4 (November 2004), pp. 309-316 (accessed at 16:27 01/02/2009)
  • Herzog. D, The Kerr Principle, State Action, and Legal Rights, Michigan Law Review, Vol. 105, No. 1 (October 2006), pp. 1-46Kymlicka. W, Multicultural Citizenship, Clarendon Press, 1995
  • Mill. J. S, On Liberty, Penguin Classics, 1985
  • Miller. D, Political Philosophy a Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2003
  • Orwell. G, Animal Farm, Penguin Books, 1989
  • Wolff. J, An Introduction to Political Philosophy (revised edition), Oxford University Press, 2006
  • (accessed at 14:57 23/01/2009)

[1] Pg.268, Heywood. A, Political Theory an Introduction (Third Edition), Macmillan, 2004 (Here Heywood is quoting from Locke’s ‘Two Treatises of Civil Government’)

[2] Pg.185, Heywood. A, Political Theory an Introduction (Third Edition), Macmillan, 2004

[3] Article 1 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (accessed at 14:57 23/01/2009)

[4] Article 2 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (accessed at 14:57 23/01/2009)

[5] Pg.127, Miller. D, Political Philosophy a Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2003

[6] Pg.73, Cord. S. B, Equal Rights: A Provable Moral Standard, American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Vol. 38, No. 1,  pp. 73-81

[7] Pg. 90, Orwell. G, Animal Farm, Penguin Books, 1989

[8] Pg. 129, Wolff. J, An Introduction to Political Philosophy (revised edition), Oxford University Press, 2006 here Wolff is quoting from Marx’s ‘On the Jewish Question

[9] Pg.90, Orwell. G, Animal Farm, Penguin Books, 1989


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