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The term inalienable rights (or unalienable rights) refers to a set of human rights that are said to be absolute, not awarded by human power, not transferable to another power, and incapable of repudiation. Several different sets of inalienable rights have been suggested by philosophers and politicians. Inalienable rights are natural rights, but natural rights are not definitionally-required to be inalienable.


It has been argued that the idea of inalienable rights is derived from the freeborn rights claimed by the Englishman John Lilburne in his conflict with both the monarchy of King Charles I and the military dictatorship of the republic governed by Oliver Cromwell. Lilburne (known as Freeborn John) defined freeborn rights as being rights that every human being is born with, as opposed to rights bestowed by government or by human law.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

The concept of inalienable rights originates from the concept of natural rights formulated by the classical liberals of the 18th and 19th centuries. It played important roles in the justifications for both the French and American Revolutions. 17th-century philosopher John Locke discussed natural rights in his work, and identified them as being "life, liberty, and estate (or property)". The 1776 United States Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson, famously asserts:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men."

Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase wrote in the case of John Van Zandt, who had been charged with violating the Fugitive Slave Act, that:

"The law of the Creator, which invests every human being with an inalienable title to freedom, cannot be repealed by any interior law which asserts that man is property."


The concept of inalienable rights was criticized by Jeremy Bentham and Edmund Burke as groundless. Bentham and Burke, writing in the eighteenth century, claimed that rights arise from the actions of government, or evolve from tradition, and that neither of these can provide anything inalienable. (See Bentham's "Critique of the Doctrine of Inalienable, Natural Rights", and Burke's "Reflections on the Revolution in France"). Keeping with shift in thinking in the 19th century, Bentham famously dismissed the idea of natural rights as "nonsense on stilts".

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The signers of the Declaration of Independence deemed it a "self evident truth" that all men are "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights". Critics, however, argue [How to reference and link to summary or text] that use of the word "Creator" signifies that these rights are based on theological principles, and ask which theological principles those are (since none of the major religions of the world assert the existence of inalienable rights [How to reference and link to summary or text]), or why those theological principles should be accepted by people who do not adhere to the religion from which they are derived.

Derivation of inalienable rights from Natural Law can also be criticized on solely philosophical grounds. The naturalistic fallacy of David Hume, which is discussed at length in G. E. Moore's Principia Ethica, is the derivation of an "ought" statement from "is" statements with no "ought" premise. Jonathan Wallace claims in his paper "Natural Rights Don't Exist,"[1] that the phrase "We hold these truths to be self-evident" is simply a "more elegant version of 'Because we said so.'"

In "The Social Contract," Jean-Jacques Rousseau claims that the existence of inalienable rights is unnecessary for the existence of a constitution or a set of laws and rights. This idea of a social contract – that rights and responsibilities are derived from a consensual contract between the government and the people – is the most widely recognized alternative.

Samuel P. Huntington, an American political scientist, wrote that the "inalienable rights" argument from the Declaration of Independence was necessary because "The British were white, English, and Protestant, just as we were. They had to have some other basis on which to justify independence".

See also


  • Locke, John. Two Treatises on Government. 1690 (primarily the second treatise)
  • Lloyd Thomas, D.A. Locke on Government. 1995, Routledge. ISBN 0-415-09533-6
  • Waldron, Jeremy [ed.] Theories of Rights 1984, Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-875063-3

External links