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Human rights

DOI
10.4324/9780415249126-S105-1
Versions
Published
2006
DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S105-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2006
Retrieved October 27, 2021, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/human-rights/v-1

1. Natural law and natural rights

Historically, the idea of human rights reaches back to that of natural rights and that idea itself developed from the idea of natural law (see Natural law). Natural law was (and is) conceived as a set of principles or rules governing proper human conduct. These principles or rules were described as ‘natural’ because they were conceived as ‘given’, usually God-given, rather than humanly constructed. The idea of natural law first developed in Stoic thinking in the third century bc (see Stoicism). The idea of natural rights was a much later development. Recent scholarship (Tuck 1979) suggests that it first emerged in fourteenth-century Europe; it was at its most popular during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Natural rights were those rights vested in people by natural law. So, for example, John Locke held that God’s natural law provided that ‘no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions’ (1689/90). He then went on to restate that law in terms of the rights it bestowed and the duties it imposed: each person had a natural right to their life, liberty and property and each had a natural duty not to harm the life, liberty and property of others.

Why were political thinkers so keen to establish that some rights were ‘natural’? The answer lies primarily in the dangers posed by political power. How could limits be placed upon political power so that those subject to it were not vulnerable to its abuse? Legal rights were inadequate for that purpose since they were merely the creations of government and what governments gave they could also take away. What was needed was a set of rights that individuals possessed independently of government, which could therefore set standards with which governments themselves must comply. Natural rights, because they were ‘natural’, met that need. Thus, for Locke, human beings held their natural rights independently and in advance of government. The primary task of a government was to uphold the natural rights of its subjects and a government that violated those natural rights lost its right to rule. It was in those general terms that Locke justified the ousting of James II in the Glorious Rebellion of 1688. The idea of natural rights was deployed to similar effect in the American Declaration of Independence (1776) which announced as self-evident truths 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’. The same idea played a prominent role in the French Revolution and received another influential statement in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789).

During the nineteenth century, the idea of natural rights met with a great deal of scepticism, focused primarily upon the claim that rights could be ‘natural’. Jeremy Bentham famously dismissed natural rights as ‘simple nonsense’ and natural and imprescriptible rights as ‘rhetorical nonsense – nonsense upon stilts’ (Waldron 1987: 53). What annoyed Bentham and others was the tendency of natural rights theorists to present these rights as if their existence and possession were matters of fact. Legal rights were facts: for any particular society, we could discover the legal rights that its members enjoy. Natural rights had no similar empirical status. For Bentham, they constituted rights that their proponents wished existed; but something does not exist merely because we wish it were so.

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Citing this article:
Jones, Peter. Natural law and natural rights. Human rights, 2006, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S105-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/human-rights/v-1/sections/natural-law-and-natural-rights.
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