Individual rights morally protect a person against oppression by the powerful (such as the democratic majority, the government, or other holders of power). Civil rights are grouporiented; they are legal rights if government recognizes and enforces them. However, civil rights also are rooted in moral rights (i.e. human rights) to such things as equal protection of the laws. Social contract theories say that individuals have natural rights, and that governments exist to protect those rights (e.g. life, liberty, and property). Utilitarians insist that governments bestow rights according to the general welfare. Communitarians believe that rights must be understood against governments need to encourage citizens to lead good lives. The Western tradition of individual rights seeks to limit government power; the U.S. Constitution embraces this tradition, though it also expresses concern for the more utilitarian goal of the general welfare. Rights can powerfully conflict, especially as more and more human needs (e.g. food, housing, education, health care) are said to be a matter of human rights. There also are serious controversies about the role of the judiciary in enforcing or implementing rights. Our moral wisdom is seriously tested by the conflicts between rights, and by disputes about how moral rights are to be implemented in the positive rights of civil law.
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