Human rights

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S105-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2006
Retrieved April 20, 2024, from

2. Human rights and natural rights

In the twentieth century, the language of human rights replaced that of natural rights. The adjective ‘human’ avoids the questionable metaphysics associated with the adjective ‘natural’. It also helped to detach these rights from the Christian cosmology within which natural law and natural rights had become embedded. Clearly, if the goal is to secure worldwide acknowledgement and acceptance of human rights, those rights cannot be grounded in a single religious faith. Nevertheless, there are two fundamental respects in which the idea of human rights remains heir to the natural rights tradition. First, it ascribes rights to people in their natural capacity as human beings; it shares with the idea of natural rights the claim that merely being human is sufficient to justify our having certain entitlements. No human being is rightfully abandoned to the whims and purposes of others. Second, the primary context in which human rights are asserted remains political. Human rights, like natural rights, are not merely gifts of the powerful; they are conceived as entitlements that we have independently of governments and that we can use to constrain and direct the uses that are made of political power. They also provide standards by which we can assess the legitimacy of governments and regimes (see Legitimacy). That is not to say that human rights make demands only upon governments. Non-governmental organizations, majorities, minorities, and individuals are all capable of violating human rights. But governments remain the primary concern of proponents of human rights, because governments have greatest significance both as the potential guardians and as the potential violators of human rights.

Citing this article:
Jones, Peter. Human rights and natural rights. Human rights, 2006, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S105-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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