The simplest conception of rights argues that to have the right to something is to be entitled to it, so that its absence constitutes a rights-violation. But this immediately leads to difficulties. For example, as surely as I have a right to anything, I have the right not to have my leg chopped off. But if I chopped my own leg off, it would seem odd to say that my rights had been violated.
Perhaps, then, we would amend our conception of rights to say that to have a right to something is to be entitled to not being deprived of it by forces external to the holder of the right. But this too is problematic. It seems fair to say that just as clearly as I have the right to not have my leg chopped off, I have the right not to be killed. But if I fell ill with a deadly disease, it would seem absurd to say that the pathogens violated my rights.
Accordingly, we might respond that to have a right does not protect us against all external deprivations, but rather against being deprived of the object of our right by other moral agents. But again, we are faced with problems. Returning to the right not to be killed, we find that there are times where others would not act badly if they killed us. The most obvious example is self-defense. If I attack you with a knife, and the only way to stop me would be to take my life, it would surely be permissible for you to do so.
Further sharpening our conception of rights, we might therefore say that to have a right to something means to be entitled against deprivation of it by other moral agents, except when the right-holder has somehow “aggressed” against someone else. But once again, counterexamples present themselves. Joel Feinberg writes:
Suppose that you are on a backpacking trip in the high mountain country when an unanticipated blizzard strikes the area with such ferocity that your life is imperiled. Fortunately, you stumble upon an unoccupied cabin, locked and boarded up for the winter, clearly somebody else’s private property. You smash in a window, enter, and huddle in a corner for three days until the storm abates. During this period you help yourself to your unknown benefactor’s food supply and burn his wooden furniture in the fireplace to keep warm. Surely you are justified in doing all these things, and yet you have infringed the clear rights of another person.
I think that Feinberg is obviously right to say that you would be justified in doing this, even though the victim in this case would not be in any way responsible for your situation. It might be clear by now that what we seem to be working towards is the idea that to have a right to something is closest to being entitled not to be deprived of it by others in the absence of certain kinds of morally significant reasons for doing so.
This conclusion seems fitting when we recall that rights reflect the respect due to others in light of their individuality and inherent worth. Properly respecting someone does not mean that we must avoid infringing their rights at all costs. Rather, it means that we must take their rights into consideration very seriously, and only infringe upon them when doing so is necessary, and when doing so would show due respect to the victims of our actions.