The term ‘natural rights’ is used to refer to those rights that belong to human beings due to their nature. Such rights do not depend on the laws or customs of any particular culture or government. They are meant to be universal, fundamental, and inalienable.
These types of rights have been indirectly written about since antiquity (Rommen, 1998), but because the ancient Greeks did not have a word that precisely corresponds to our concept of a ‘right’ (MacIntyre, 2007, pp. 68-70 & Geuss, 2008, pp. 65-67), it is reasonable to conclude that the doctrine of natural rights was developed in the Age of Enlightenment and its liberal philosophers.
In today’s political discourse, it is more common to hear of human rights than natural rights, but the two concepts are similar in many ways (Jones, 1994).
What are Natural Rights?
Theories of natural rights focus on human features that entitle them to certain rights by nature. The theories often differ over precisely which attributes of humans give rise to which natural rights.
A common criticism of natural rights theories is precisely this: natural rights theorists can not agree on a specific list of rights that humans have due to their nature.
Natural rights theory was developed mainly in the early modern era. Important contributors to natural rights theory are Hugo Grotius, Thomas Hobbes, Samuel von Pufendorf, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Francis Hutcheson, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and most notably John Locke.
In his Two Treatises of Government, Locke argued that the state of nature has a law that governs it. According to this law:
“no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions (Locke, 1689). These natural rights also serve to limit the legitimate authority of the state.”
Locke’s influence on American and French political documents of the 18th century is apparent. Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence (1776) states:
“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.”
Thomas Hobbes’ conception of natural rights was different. His earlier conception of natural rights, which preceded that of John Locke, was not derived from natural law. Hobbes’ conception was entirely negative: laws, for Hobbes, referred to obligations, while rights referred to the absence of obligations.
Natural Rights Examples
1. The Right to Life
The right to life is commonly cited as an example of an inalienable natural right that belongs to all human beings. This means that no person or entity, including the government, has the right to end anyone else’s life.
The concept of a right to life is a matter of controversy when it is invoked in discussions of capital punishment, abortion, euthanasia, suicide, killings by law enforcement, and so on.
It is usually thought of as universal and inalienable, but in practice, it sometimes does not apply. For example, according to Article 2 of the UK Human Rights Act of 1998, a person’s right to life is not violated if they die when a public authority uses necessary force to (1) stop them from carrying out unlawful violence, (2) make a lawful arrest, (3) stop them from escaping lawful detainment, or (4) stop a riot or uprising.
2. The Right to Liberty (Freedom)
The right to liberty is also a commonly cited example of an inalienable, universal, and fundamental natural right. It is explicitly granted by several human rights documents.
The right to liberty was one of the natural rights listed by John Locke in his Second Treatise of Government (Locke, 1689).
Article 5 of the UK Human Rights Act of 1998 grants the right to liberty and security. This means that the individual’s freedom must be protected from unreasonable detention. No one can be imprisoned or detained without good reason.
This right, however, must not be understood literally because there are cases where it does not apply. For example, a criminal’s right to liberty may legitimately be overruled if they have been found guilty and sent to prison.
3. The Right to Own Property (Locke: “Estate”)
The right to own property or the right to property is often classified as a natural right. It was one of the rights listed by Locke (Locke, 1689).
A right to property is explicitly recognized by the 17th Article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that (1) “Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others” and (2) “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property” (United Nations, n.d.).
This right is not recognized by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights or the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (Doebbler, 2006). It is more controversial than the examples above in terms of recognition and interpretation.
4. The Right to Freedom of Thought
Freedom of thought, belief, and religion is often considered to be a natural right of all human beings. Public authorities cannot interfere with anyone’s right to hold or change a belief.
There are, however, cases in which the authorities might interfere with how you act based on those beliefs or thoughts.
The European Court of Human Rights found that a person cannot be forced to demonstrate views or behavior that is associated with a religion. Public authorities should, therefore, be weary when using procedures that involve the swearing of oaths.
A requirement to swear on the Bible, for example, would breach human rights law (Human Rights: Human Lives. A Guide to the Human Rights Act for Public Authorities | Equality and Human Rights Commission, n.d.).
5. The Right to Freedom of Speech
Freedom of speech is one of the most commonly cited rights that is considered fundamental, natural, universal, and inalienable.
The right to freedom of speech or expression has been recognized as a human right in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international human rights law by the United Nations.
6. The Right to Make a Living
The right to make a living is far less commonly cited as a natural right than the examples above. It is not explicitly recognized in the U.S. Constitution or most other legal documents.
Sandefur, for example, argues that the American founders thought the right to earn a living was so basic and obvious that it didn’t need to be mentioned in the Bill of Rights (Sandefur, 2010).
This argument, however, is controversial. Most natural rights theorists don’t include the right to make a living in their lists of natural rights.
7. The Right to Practice your Religion
The widely recognized right to practice a religion is considered to be a natural right that belongs to all human beings (Congressional Record, V. 149, Pt. 21, November 12, 2003 to November 19 2003, 2008).
It includes the right to manifest religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance, the right to change one’s religious beliefs, the right not to profess any religion or belief, and the right not to practice a religion.
8. The Right to Have a Family
The right to family life is the right of all human beings to establish and maintain family relationships.
It is recognized in Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 23 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Natural rights are those entitlements that are meant to belong to all human beings by nature. These rights are typically thought of as universal, fundamental, and inalienable.
They do not depend on the laws or customs of any specific culture or government.
The theory of natural rights was developed during the early modern era by several thinkers, including Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and many more. Natural rights theory is not without its critics, but it continues to influence contemporary politics and discourse to a large degree.
Congressional Record, V. 149, Pt. 21, November 12, 2003 to November 19 2003. (2008). U.S. Government Printing Office.
Declaration of Independence: A Transcription. (2015, November 1). National Archives. https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript
Doebbler, C. F. J. (2006). Introduction to International Human Rights Law. CD Pub.
Geuss, R. (2008). Philosophy and real politics. Princeton University Press.
Human Rights: Human Lives. A Guide to the Human Rights Act for Public Authorities | Equality and Human Rights Commission. (n.d.). Retrieved December 15, 2022, from https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/en/publication-download/human-rights-human-lives-guide-human-rights-act-public-authorities
Jones, P. (1994). Rights. Palgrave Macmillan.
Locke, J. (1689). The Two Treatises of Civil Government (Hollis ed.). A. Millar et al.. https://oll.libertyfund.org/title/hollis-the-two-treatises-of-civil-government-hollis-ed
MacIntyre, A. C. (2007). After virtue: A study in moral theory. University of Notre Dame Press. https://books.google.ge/books?id=7bLuAAAAMAAJ
Rommen, H. A. (1998). The Natural Law: A Study in Legal and Social History and Philosophy. Liberty Fund.
Sandefur, T. (2010). The Right to Earn a Living: Economic Freedom and the Law. Cato Institute.
United Nations. (n.d.). Universal Declaration of Human Rights. United Nations; United Nations. Retrieved December 14, 2022, from https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights
Wenar, L. (2021). Rights. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2021). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2021/entries/rights/