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Natural rights (also called moral rights) are universal rights that are seen as not contingent upon being granted by government. Government may violate a natural right, but in doing so it is not eliminating the existence of that right. For example, if there is a natural right to be free, then a government that enslaves an individual is violating an individual's right to liberty rather than eliminating the existence of that right. Hence, natural rights provide a moral justification for condemning actions taken against individuals by governments or other individuals. Those who advocate natural rights hold that there are certain liberties that should not be violated regardless of other considerations. This contrasts with legal positivism which holds that the only rights that can exist are legal rights. John Locke was one of the first Western theorists to conceptualize rights as natural and inalienable, that is, they could not be bought or sold, but were derived from common human nature. Many philosophers and statesmen have designed lists of what they believe to be natural rights; almost all include the right to life and liberty, as these are considered to be the two highest priorities. R. M. Hare has argued that if there are any rights at all, there must be the right to liberty, for all the others would depend upon this. The existence of natural rights may be derived by individuals in various ways, such as through philosophical reasoning or religious study. For example, Immanuel Kant claimed to derive natural rights through "reason" alone. The term "natural rights" lost popularity, particularly after World War II and has been largely replaced with the term human rights, because natural law has become controversial.[1]

Critics have argued that natural rights do not exist (in the sense that all rights are invented by human beings and are therefore by definition "artificial"). The attempt to derive rights from "natural law" or "human nature" is an example of the is-ought problem in philosophy, and, as noted above, different philosophers have created different lists of rights they consider to be natural. Critics have pointed to this lack of agreement as evidence for the claim that the idea of natural rights is merely a political tool. For instance, Jonathan Wallace has asserted that proclaiming some rights as "natural" is another way of saying "Stop asking questions" and "I have won this argument." It is assuredly gratifying to invoke "nature" for one's purposes and beliefs, but this does not demonstrate that such invokations all enjoy the same logic and evidence, or lack thereof.

The primary modern Western philosopher who fully made natural rights the source of his moral and political philosophy was Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). Hobbes argued that it is human nature to love one's self best and seek one's own good (bonum sibi). Since it is unavoidable ("necessity of nature") for human beings to follow their nature, it becomes a right to do so. To deny this right is to deny that we have a right to be human, which would be absurd, just as it would be absurd to demand that carnivores reject meat or that fish stop swimming. Therefore, we have no obligations by birth or nature, but only unlimited rights - until for reasons of self-interest we consent to waive some of these natural rights and create moral obligations in order to establish political and civil society.

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Hobbes objected to the attempt to derive rights from "natural law," warning us that law ("lex") and right ("jus") though often confused, signify opposites, with law referring to obligations, while rights refer to the absence of obligations. Since by our (human) nature, we seek to maximize our well being, rights are prior to law, natural or institutional. This marked an important departure from medieval natural law which gave priority to obligations over rights. However, some thinkers such as Leo Strauss, maintained that Hobbes kept the primacy of natural law or moral obligation over natural rights, a position that seems to undermine Hobbes' break with medieval thought. John Locke (1632-1704), was another prominent modern Western philosopher who conceptualized rights as natural and inalienable. Like Hobbes, Locke was a major social contract thinker, who argued that all legitimate governments must be based on consent.

Many philosophers and statesmen have designed lists of what they believe to be natural rights; almost all include the right to life and liberty, property or pursuit of happiness, as these are considered to be the three highest priorities. Some thinkers like Locke emphasized "property" as primary. However, despite Locke’s influential defense of the right of revolution, Thomas Jefferson substituted "pursuit of happiness" for property in the Declaration of Independence. It should be noted, though often overlooked, that the Declaration of Independence also based natural or "unalienable rights" on human nature, since if anything is "self-evident" it is that human beings by their very nature seek life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This assumed, like Hobbes, Locke - and Jean–Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) also a major social contract thinker - the right of human beings to be human as a natural right antedating and not bestowed by government.

Critics have argued that natural rights do not exist (in the sense that all rights are invented by human beings and are therefore by definition "artificial"). This, of course, is true of customary, legal, and constitutional rights, but does not necessarily refute Hobbes' contention that there is absurdity in denying the right of human beings to seek their greatest good, that is, to follow their own nature. Some have also rejected 'liberty" as a need of human nature. Plato's The Republic is an important example. So is, in literature, Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor (in The Brothers Karamazov) who sought to convince Jesus that human beings fear and cannot handle freedom because their weak nature requires authority, mystery, and miracle.


  1. Weston, Burns H. Human Rights in Encyclopedia Britannica Online, p. 2, Retrieved May 18, 2006

See also


  • Hart, H. L. A. "Are there any natural rights?" (Philosophical Review 64, 1955)
  • Strauss, Leo. Natural Right And History, University of Chicago Press, 1965
  • Wallace, Jonathan "Natural Rights Don't Exist"

es:Derecho natural fr:Droit naturel

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