Hohfeld’s taxonomy (immunities)

In my previous post, I introduced (via Larry Solum’s legal theory blog) Wesley Hohfeld’s influential fourfold taxonomy of “entitlements” or legal rights: claim rights, liberty rights, powers, and immunities. Let’s now take a closer look at Hohfeld’s taxonomy, beginning (in reverse order) with “immunities.” For Hohfeld, an immunity refers to an immunity from authority, but what does this (“immunity from authority”) really mean? To understand this type of right (i.e. immunity from authority), we first have to ask ourselves, what are the main functions of law.

One important function of law is to confer benefits or entitlements (such as property rights) on persons. Perhaps the most fundamental such entitlement or right we have is the right to our own bodies. Broadly speaking, each person of age and sound mind has an exclusive entitlement or property right to his own body. (Minors or mental incompetents, by contrast, are owned by their parents or legal guardians, as the case may be.) An immunity from authority, then, simply means that no one else has the legal right or authority to tell what you can do or not do with your own body. You want to get a tattoo, for example? Although I would strongly caution you to not get a tattoo (or if you do get one, to make it as small and inconspicuous as possible), I have no legal authority over you, and thus I can’t legally prohibit from you getting a tattoo. Assuming you are an adult of sound mind, when it comes to tattoos you enjoy a legal immunity from my authority.

Nevertheless, the law imposes a wide variety of restrictions on what we can or cannot do with our bodies, such as suicide, the consumption of certain drugs, “sex work” and certain types of sex acts, etc. In other words, even though we have a general property right in our own bodies, immunities from authority are not the whole story, for this general right or entitlement is protected in various additional ways, and some of these protections may end up limiting some aspects of our bodily entitlements. To understand the full scope of these entitlements, we need to study the remaining three types of Hohfeldian legal rights, which we will continue to do in our next few posts …

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Source: cyprian64, via Imgur

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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2 Responses to Hohfeld’s taxonomy (immunities)

  1. Pingback: Hohfeld taxonomy (liberties) | prior probability

  2. Pingback: Hohfeld’s taxonomy (claim rights) | prior probability

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