Law is a system of norms, largely oriented towards action-guiding and adjudicating aspects of human behavior.
The word “law” is derived from the Latin word lege, meaning “command”. John Austin’s utilitarian answer to this question was that law was “commands, backed by threat of sanctions, from a sovereign to whom people have a habit of obedience.” Natural lawyers on the other hand see law as reflecting essentially moral and unchangeable laws of nature.
Among the many features salient specifically to legal rights are their institutional orientation, their extensive use of procedures (validation, recognition, judgment, legislation, enforcement), and their nested in a rich network of processes that include courts. Moreover, legal rights exhibit features absent or more muted in normative systems of non-legal institutions, such as social clubs and trade unions, which are typically not governed by the same legal constraints that govern law.
Hohfeldian Relations between Rights: Various Norms in Combination
One particularly puzzling combination of Hohfeldian relations is that of rights of one normative kind to violate the obligations of another. For example, imagine a claim-right to inherit property rights on the grounds of one’s gender; or, a right to be persecuted by state authorities; or, a claim-right to die of starvation.
It is no wonder, then, that a growing number of contemporary philosophers are dismissive of the idea that rights are genuine reasons for legal determinations. Such skepticism often arises from the influence of consequentialist approaches to political morality, and especially in relation to deontology (e.g., Bentham 1843b: 490-534).