You need to know Hohfeld! Why? Because W.N. Hohfeld’s typology of rights from his book Fundamental Legal Conceptions is, well, fundamental. And useful!
Law students encounter the idea of right (moral or legal) early and often. But “rights talk” is frequently “loose talk.” Hohfeld is famous for exposing the ambiguity in the concept of a right and resolving that ambiguity with a typology of rights that distinguishes between claims, liberties, authorities, and immunities. This post is a quick and dirty introduction to Hohfeld for law students (especially first year law students) with an interest in legal theory.
Types of Rights and Correlative Duties
Lawyers tend to mush all legal rights together into a single category. The right to privacy, the right to freedom of speech, property rights, and civil rights—these diverse legal phenomena are frequently treated as if the “right” involved in these diverse cases was a single unambiguous type. Hohfeld’s first contribution was to distinguish different types of rights. Claim rights, for example, create corresponding obligations. Thus, my right to exclusive use of my land entails a corresponding duty of noninterference. You have a duty not to enter upon my land. But my property right also entails my liberty to use my land in a wide variety of ways—to build a house, plant a garden, and so forth. Correlated to that liberty is a correlative absence of inconsistent claim rights. You have no right to prevent me from building a house or planting a garden. Some legal rights involve powers over others. Thus, an employer has a right to control and direct the employee’s actions at work, and parents have authority over their children. Finally, there are immunities from authority. Thus, when children reach the age of majority or are legally emancipated they acquire immunities that disable the authority rights of their parents.
Implicit in our discussion so far is Hohfeld’s second big idea, which is that each kind of right (claim, liberty, authority, and immunity) has a correlative legal consequence for others. Claim rights have correlative duties. Liberty rights correlate with an absence of claims. Authority rights correlate with liabilities. Immunities correlate with the absence of authority.
Four Types of Rights
The following list enumerates Hohfeld’s basic schema, identifying each kind of right and the correlative legal consequence. P is the party with the right. Q represents the person or group of persons on whom the right has a legal effect. X represents the object of the right.
Rights relation: P has a claim against Q to X.
Correlative relation: Q has a duty to P to X.
Rights relation: P has a liberty against Q to X.
Correlative relation: Q has no claim against P to not-X
Rights relation: P has authority over Q to X
Correlative relation: Q has a liability to P to X.
Rights relation: P has an immunity against Q to X.
Correlative relation: Q has a disability (no authority) against P to not-X.
Moral and Legal Rights
Hohfeld was interested in legal rights, but we can extend his scheme to moral rights. Thus, if I have a moral claim right to performance of a promise, you have a corresponding moral duty to perform. Of course, many legal rights are identical to (or substantially the same as) similar moral rights. Contracts, for example, create both moral and legal obligations. Some moral rights, however, may not be reflected in the law. For example, I may have a moral obligation not to discriminate on the basis of race when letting a room in my home, but at the same time have a legal liberty right to engage in such discrimination.
That’s Hohfeld in a very short nutshell!
Wesley Newcomb Hohfeld, Fundamental Legal Conceptions As Applied in Judicial Reasoning (Dartmouth Pub Co; Reprint ed. 2002) (originally 26 Yale Law Journal 710 (1917)) (online version)
Walter Wheeler Cook, Hohfeld's Contribution to the Science of Law, 28 Yale Law Journal 721 (1918)
Joseph William Singer, The Legal Rights Debate in Analytical Jurisprudence from Bentham to Hohfeld, 1982 Wisconsin Law Review 975.
(This entry was last revised on February 14, 2011.)