Civil Rights vs. Civil Liberties

Difference Between Civil Rights And Civil Liberties

Civil Rights and Liberties. The terms civil liberties and civil rights have no fixed and uniform definition. Often they are used broadly and interchangeably. One way of distinguishing the two phrases is to say that a person enjoys a civil “liberty” when he or she is conferred with some positive power while being protected from government action. Thus the right to free speech would be a civil liberty; the right to use public facilities on an equal basis would be a civil right.

In common usage civil rights often refers specifically to the rights of minority groups to equal treatment. Civil liberties and civil rights are considered a cornerstone of a free society. They indicate the ways in which a society protects individual freedom. But freedom also has many meanings. The term may be used to mean the absence of external restraint. In that sense, poor persons in the United States as well as rich ones are free to travel to Europe. A second meaning requires that a person have the opportunity to do something before he or she can be considered free to do it. In that sense, only those who can pay are free to go to Europe. A third sense of freedom is the freedom to do what is right. Some thinkers have reasoned that people are genuinely free only when they believe what is true and do what is morally correct. They argue that the freedom to accept falsehood and to do wrong is not true freedom. A fourth use of the word refers to the absence of psychological and emotional constraints on individual action.

The first two of these senses of freedom are most directly associated with the relationship of individuals to government in a liberal democratic society, and they are the only senses in which the term will be discussed here. In a libertarian society, preventing the dissemination of untruths and reducing immoral acts to a minimum (the third sense, above) are not considered central functions of government—nor is, for the most part, eliminating or reducing personal psychological tensions, although the psychological and sociopolitical realms can be and often are closely connected.

Although freedom—and the liberties and rights that protect it—is an important good, it may conflict with other goods. The speaker’s freedom is maximized if he or she is allowed to incite a riot, but the peace of society may require restraint. In many circumstances different kinds of freedom conflict, as in the clash between a homeowner’s claim to rent to whomever he or she pleases and the claim of a member of a racial minority to equal treatment. Another example is the taxation of the rich for the benefit of the poor; the freedom of the rich to spend their money in the way they choose is restrained, but the freedom of the poor, in the sense of broader opportunity, is enhanced.

The civil liberties and rights granted by the law of any particular society reflect how that society has accommodated the inevitable clashes of values. While most discussion, and this article, focuses on how that adjustment is made by law, private institutions also play a significant role in determining the practical bounds of individual freedom. If, for example, major private companies discharged employees who expressed unpopular opinions, many persons would hesitate to exercise their legal privilege to speak freely. More subtle influences, such as possible rejection by friends and acquaintances, also constrain uninhibited discussion.



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