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Do We, Naturally, Have Rights?

Updated on May 23, 2014
John Locke's essay exploring rights
John Locke's essay exploring rights

Natural Rights

For the notion of rights to be meaningful, it needs a basis. That's what the natural rights philosophers argued. The key characteristics of rights are as follows:

They must be

  • Natural
  • Inalienable
  • Universal
  • Inviolable
  • Eternal

The view that rights are natural is now an outdated one since it evolved into the theory of human rights and later to legal rights. This is because the view that rights are natural, that they exist independently of human beings and are a true concept, has many issues. We'll go into these later in the article.

Natural rights are usually thought of in conjunction with religion. It is the most common belief that rights are given to us by God and so we are born with them, we always have them, and everyone has them no matter what the circumstances may be.

Philosopher John Locke was a believer in natural rights, claiming that everyone had the fundamental right to life, liberty and property. This view developed from his thought experiment of the state of nature. Two other philosophers, Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau also used the same thought experiment but came to different conclusions about human nature.

Four Theories of Natural Rights

There are four ways in which natural rights are considered and four ways in which they can be criticised. I'm only going into two, so here's the list of four which you can use to research if you wish.

  1. Theological

  2. Anthropological

  3. Psychological

  4. Universal

Issues with Natural Rights

  • We need to understand where rights come from, they can't just appear from nowhere. One perspective, as we've briefly considered with Locke, is that these rights are God given. This is the theological perspective of natural rights.

Issue: The issue here is that God is transcendent, not a part of the natural world, so it is possible to argue that these rights aren't technically even part of the natural world at all! Moreover, different cultures have different gods, which means they have different concepts of rights, which immediately breaks the rule of universality which is one of the key characteristics of a natural right. Without this characteristic, it ceases to be a natural right any more. This perspective of natural rights doesn't even meet its own criteria!

  • Another issue presented in the concept of natural rights is that from the anthropological perspective. Many philosophers try to determine our human nature by imagining life in the state of nature - without law or government - in order to discover what natural rights we have.

Issue: There never, in history, has been a state of nature, it is simply a thought experiment, so any rights that become apparent in this context can't be deemed relevant to our current lifestyle. It can be argued that our natural state is one of sociological influence and law. Aristotle claimed that we are in nature political beings. It would make much more sense to develop the idea of natural rights in the context of the way we live now and the way we have always known which, incidentally, is actually a legal context. And anyway, even if we do determine our natural rights by using a thought experiment of the state of nature, we're doing so using our own rationality, meaning we've created the concept ourselves, meaning rights is a man-made concept after all!

Rights are...

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Bentham's preserved body (except for his head which is a wax replica) is on public display in University College London
Bentham's preserved body (except for his head which is a wax replica) is on public display in University College London

Jeremy Bentham

Jeremy Bentham described the notion of natural rights as

'nonsense on stilts'.

Which is perhaps my favourite quote of all time!

Natural rights are completely useless without the law in place to enforce them. Without specific, legal establishments, natural rights are just vague and ambiguous statements that hold no meaning. Bentham recognised (as a utilitarian) that rights are essential to promote utility within a society, and that's why he promoted legal rights, we need law enforcement to protect the rights and create a happy state.

Andrew Brown writes an article in The Guardian claiming that natural or human rights cannot exist simply because there is no evidence for it. He argues: 'You might as well claim that the bible is true because the bible says it is true'.

And he has got a point. We only have a concept of rights because that concept has been drilled into us through propaganda, education and politics. We weren't born believing in rights!

Another issue with natural rights is that if they were indeed natural, animals would have them too. But they certainly don't appear to respect the rights of each other; animals prey on other animals to survive, that's part of nature, rights aren't.

So essentially...

Rights are a completely man-made and meaningless concept.

But that doesn't mean they aren't important for human well being and social cohesion, which is why we now have the concept of legal rights today.

But legal rights too present a range of issues in their nature and I'll go into these in another hub.

For now, what are your views on the concept of rights as natural?

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    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I taught history and political science for a number of years. Nice summary here.

      How are things going on HP for you? I don't see comments here, and I'm not sure if that is important to you. The comments will increase if you become active in the HP community....commenting on articles written by other writers.

    • Amy Naylor profile image
      Author

      Amy Naylor 3 years ago from England

      Thanks billybuc, you'r right, I'm not seeing a huge amount of views either but I am doing what I can to become active within the HP community, not just on other hubs but on the Answers and Forums too.

      I'm hoping if I stick around for long enough and keep doing what I'm doing things will pick up. I'm optimistic still!

      Thanks for your concern and advice.

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 3 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Very thought provoking Hub, Amy. Rights are a human construct. Men may have justified them as natural but that is clearly false. Most of human history has shown a "might makes right" political construct. Rights are a relatively new concept created over the past 300 years or so. That is not to say they are not important. It shows a positive evolution of human thought that has coalesced into these rights that we believe all people should have. These rights help to ensure the common welfare of the society and recognizes the concept of "what is good and true for one is good and true for all. Of course different societies recognize different rights but they are usually similar. These rights become ingrained into our laws and Constitution giving them a much stronger permanency and legitimacy.

    • Fred Arnold profile image

      Fred Arnold 3 years ago from Clearwater, FL

      This was a good read and made me think on some things. I'd like to propose some philosophical debate here.

      If life is natural, by our definition, and our life breeds our ideals, which means our ideals are natural. So the idea of human's having rights is natural. Therefore we have natural rights.

      All animals live in a system of natural order. It is natural for them to hunt other animals so they have the natural right to hunt. Animals live in societies just as we do, but can not advance as far. There mindset is limited to their nature. Which would then make up their own philosophy of natural rights.

      The universe has a pattern. It runs on instincts. Like the late Carl Sagan once said "We are the way for the universe to know itself." Because of this, and because of our understanding of philosophy, we are able to step outside of our instincts and look at how the universe runs without being impeded. This ability to step outside and look in is what initially defined our natural rights.

      As people, we have a higher understanding and go against what is natural for us. We dictate for ourselves what our natural right is for the benefit of the human race. We can do this because of our ability to be detached from our instincts and formulate ideals from our sense experience.

      To me, natural rights is the flow of the universe.

    • Amy Naylor profile image
      Author

      Amy Naylor 3 years ago from England

      Thank you for the comment! A couple of questions:

      You say the animals' mindset is limited to their nature and so the have their own philosophy of natural rights. Does this mean that human beings in less advanced cultures also have their own philosophy of natural rights? If so, are these rights true? Because if we all have different ideals it can be difficult to claim that they can be natural at all.

      I agree with your statement that as a race we have a higher understanding and go against what is natural for us. Perhaps we are so clouded by our unnatural ways that we haven't yet developed a true understanding of these natural rights, which is why many philosophers used the thought experiment to try to understand.

      Believing in natural rights then, what do you believe our natural rights are? The ones already proposed in our current political world. or something more fundamental than that?

      Legal rights are getting a little bit silly and there are rights that cannot be promised to everyone, which surely stops them being rights. There's even talk of a right to the internet...

    • Amy Naylor profile image
      Author

      Amy Naylor 3 years ago from England

      Thank you @HSchneider it seems we're in agreement!

      Rights are constantly evolving, quicker now than ever, as we see new rights come in and take the place of old. This is a very positive process as many rights are no longer relevant in modern society. I think they're flexibility is a good thing. If we were to stick to the idea of natural rights things would come to a bit of a standstill.

    • Fred Arnold profile image

      Fred Arnold 3 years ago from Clearwater, FL

      "Because if we all have different ideals it can be difficult to claim that they can be natural at all"

      - Natural is a subjective term. What is natural for humans will not be natural for lions. Just like what is natural for Americans will not be natural for Russians. Lawrence Kohlberg studied the ethical principle development in humans. He notes that there is a progression of ethical thought as a person grows which he defines in six different stages. At the highest stage, the person makes ethical decisions based completely off of a natural tendency. Those ethical decisions are personal and universal, and based off of rational and empirical data. As humans we are able to think all the way up to stage 6 in his model, while say an animal can only think in stages 1 and 2.

      In my opinion, and I'm still trying to work this out, our natural right is to grow as a society. They say there's a natural right to life, which there is not because any number of things can kill you. A natural right to property is just as ridiculous because that too can be taken away. And not even by another human being. The universe could just decide to blow up the Earth at any minute. We state these as law to protect ourselves from ourselves and to succeed toward that goal of societal growth. Happiness is the closest to my form of natural rights because it is based off of our societies growth.

      Descartes once said "I think therefore I am." And I say, "I think therefore I am allowed to grow."

    • Amy Naylor profile image
      Author

      Amy Naylor 3 years ago from England

      I like your view, but it is different to that of the natural rights discussed in this essay. What you are suggesting is that we have natural rights, but the key characteristics offered by philosophers that must be apparent for the right to be natural are indeed misguided. That's interesting, I like it.

    • Fred Arnold profile image

      Fred Arnold 3 years ago from Clearwater, FL

      What defines natural?

      1. existing in or caused by nature; not made or caused by humankind.

      What defines a right?

      true or correct as a fact.

      morally good, justified, or acceptable.

      My point, not so elegantly stated above haha, is that the most natural form in the universe is the ability of growth. The universe is expanding, babies grow into adults, and plants sprout in the summer.

      Growth is completely guaranteed when you are born. Life is not guaranteed, property is not guaranteed. If you live, you are guaranteed the right to grow. That leads to a lot of things as humans. Increased intelligence being the most prominent.

      If we adapt that concept into something more conceptual you could look at it like this:

      Growth is natural, as you grow you gain more intelligence, therefore intelligence is natural.

      If intelligence is natural, and with that intelligence we create ideas, then those ideas are natural.

      If those ideas are natural, and those ideas include our ideas on what is natural rights, then that makes natural rights natural. Therefore being proven that natural rights exist.

      This could relate to the ideas of Aristotle on some notes.

      Also, you used this quote "We need to understand where rights come from, they can't just appear from nowhere."

      These natural rights, which are our ideas, which naturally develop from our growth, did not just happen. They grew as we grew, as people and as societies.

      Every idea can be defeated by the argument of ambiguity. Every argument can be defeated by the ideals of subjection. And every idea in the human mind can be defeated by saying it is just a man made meaningless concept. Working through the problem is what is important, not falling into these types of defeated outcomes.

      If the world revolved around these ideas it would be a very boring world. ^^

    • Amy Naylor profile image
      Author

      Amy Naylor 3 years ago from England

      That's a pretty sound argument, I'm not sure I can even fault that!

      I'm going to bring up those cliché philosophical controversies now just because I'm interested to hear your view based on your natural rights belief...

      I would assume, due to your growth and development argument, that you would be pro euthanasia for those with terminal illness. This is because the individual has already grown as much as they can and would be unable to progress any further anyway. But supposedly you would be against women's choice in the abortion debate because the foetus is a potential human being with the natural right to be able to enter the world and grow.

      Am I right in thinking this?

      Thanks so much for your engagement by the way!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Amy, it is a long process. It usually takes a year before your fortunes really change on HP. I hope you stick it out.

    • Fred Arnold profile image

      Fred Arnold 3 years ago from Clearwater, FL

      I do agree if someone wants to die then it is their choice. The mind never stops growing when it comes to intelligence though, that's never ending.

      I stated above that we are not guaranteed life. So an abortion would be one of those scenarios.

      Of course! Philosophy is always a lot of fun :)

    • WillStarr profile image

      WillStarr 3 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      If rights are natural, universal, inalienable, and granted by God or nature, then man and his governments cannot take them away without dire consequences.

      If man universally recognized rights as essential to his existence, success, and survival as a species, are not those rights as natural as man himself?

      Some claim our Constitution 'grants' us our rights, but a careful examination of the language reveals that each right listed preexists the Constitution and were presumed to be inalienable.

    • Amy Naylor profile image
      Author

      Amy Naylor 3 years ago from England

      And yet rights are violated more regularly than we dare to imagine.

      Thank you for reading, and for your contribution!

    • WillStarr profile image

      WillStarr 3 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      "And yet rights are violated more regularly than we dare to imagine."

      True, but how can we violate that which does not exist?

    • Amy Naylor profile image
      Author

      Amy Naylor 3 years ago from England

      The right itself might not exist but the state's promise to protect it nevertheless does. Promises that can't be kept should never be made.

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