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Natural Rights

Alan Chudnow asks if there are any natural rights which can be derived from reasoning.

Many philosophers and political theorists have believed that man is endowed with certain natural rights. Thomas Hobbes’ analysis in Leviathan indicated that individual humans had the natural right to survive. John Locke, in An Essay Concerning The True Extent and End of Civil Government, argued that humans had the natural rights of life, liberty, and property. The fact that these or other rights are ‘natural’ might be regarded as giving them a special status and inalienability over other rights that are culturally specific. Can ‘natural’ rights be derived by reasoning? To decide this question we (1) must first define what ‘rights’ are; and (2) define what would qualify as ‘natural’ about these rights.

What are rights?

Today, the term ‘right’ is bantered about quite commonly and in different ways. We have equal rights, legal rights, prison riots, the right to life, and a right to choose. The jurist Wesley N. Hohfeld defined four different generic types of rights:1

  • Privileges, which are rights to do something and imply a guarantee that the citizen be protected from the actions of others. For example, the right to practice a religious belief is a guarantee that others will not persecute one for this choice.
  • Immunities, which are rights to not do something and imply a guarantee of freedom from burdens that one might otherwise face. For example, the immunity from having to give evidence against oneself in court.
  • Claims, which are rights that imply others will do something in your interest. For example the right to repayment of a loan implies a duty on the part of the debtor.
  • Powers, which are rights of an individual to deny usage to others. For example, the right to a sandwich implies a power to deny others from eating it.

The key point of this breakdown is that each type of right implies that others accept (or at least ought to accept) a disability, liability, or duty to respect this right. Rights imply mandatory obligations that can only exist:

(1) in a community; and

(2) where others in the community accept the disabilities, liabilities, or duties that rights imply.

This definition of rights is somewhat different than Hobbes’ natural right – jus naturale. In Leviathan, Hobbes argues that men, in the state of nature, have a right of nature to use their abilities to survive. However, in the state of nature, a state of war, Hobbes does not reason that others have a corresponding disability, liability, or duty to respect another’s right of survival – in fact just the opposite. Thus Hobbes’ right of nature is a statement of justification (or authority) for an individual to act, not a statement of ‘right’.2 What would a natural right be?

What would count as natural rights?

In conversation, people use the word ‘natural’ in many different contexts: natural as meaning handed down from God (theological); natural as meaning as existed for pre-societal humans (anthropological); natural as meaning in keeping with human nature or those characteristics typical of humans (psychological); and natural as meaning as exists in nature (universal). However, in each of these contexts, natural was intended to mean the opposite of ‘specific to a particular culture’ – ‘natural’ implies universal or independent from culture.

In the theological context, natural rights are defined by the obligations that God passes down to man. In an example from the Bible, the ‘natural’ right to life is established by God’s commandment “Thou shall not kill.” For example, Locke’s right to property is based on the theological assumptions that (1) God “gave the world in common to all mankind” and (2) individuals are under an obligation to respect the rights of others because they are all God’s works.3

The idea of a ‘natural’ right provided by a God, an entity, by definition, outside of nature, is inconsistent. Theological beliefs are also identifiable with specific cultures (e.g., a Christian culture, Buddhist Culture, or Aztec Culture). Each of these cultures had and has very specific and different views about human rights. Because rights defined on theological terms are provided from outside nature and are culturally specific, it seems inappropriate to label rights derived using theology as natural.

In the anthropological context, a natural right would imply those obligations that ancient humans, in a primitive existence long past, took upon themselves on behalf of their fellows. Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and other philosophers, have used the pre-societal condition, not to analyse the moral existence of Neolithic man, but to suggest how humans might have behaved if they had existed in a state without a specific culture. In this sense, there is nothing very ‘natural’ about the anthropological context at all, since no humans exist outside of a specific culture. And as humans, and man’s closest genetic relatives, the upper primates evolved and exist today as social animals, there likely never was a time during man’s evolution when man did not exist as a social animal.

Occasionally, we do read of weird cases of children raised without socialisation, for example by wolves or by abusive parents. However, the fact that the children in these cases rarely fit into society afterwards demonstrates that this way is not ‘natural’. While there are also those who voluntarily forgo a social existence (e.g. monks, pioneers, ….) this way of life does seem very untypical. As Aristotle in the Politics states, “he…who has no need for the state because he is sufficient for himself must be either a beast or a god.” Further, rights can only be defined with respect to society and cannot exist in a presocietal condition. In the pre-societal context, the idea of ‘natural’ rights is not meaningful.

The psychological context defines ‘natural’ as based on ‘human nature’. The idea of human nature is difficult to grasp. To many, human nature is defined by the way humans might act in the presocietal context described above. To me, this seems neither natural or useful. I think that it is more useful to consider human nature as the typical psychological behaviour of humans across specific cultures. Unfortunately, attempts to define human behaviour as being for good or for evil or as generous or selfish are gross oversimplifications of very complex and very diverse behaviour.

Using this definition of human nature, natural rights would be understood as the typical rights that humans grant each other across all societies and cultures. Natural rights are those rights in ‘common’ to human societies. One problem with this approach is that there are likely no-rights that are in common to all societies. It is easy to think of societies that have denied universal rights to life, liberty, and property (e.g. any slave society). Further, the idea of natural rights as common rights seems to very strongly imply that natural rights are not different or more special than cultural rights (the opposition of natural rights).

The universal context defines ‘nature’ as the entire physical universe. Everything that exists, exists in nature. All rights that we respected in the past, currently, or at any time in the future will be respected in the state of nature. Thus, all rights are ‘natural’ rights. Unfortunately, while this definition may be logical it doesn’t capture the meaning of ‘natural’ that is important in the specialness of ‘natural rights’. It does, however, demonstrate the difficulties of reasoning out things that are natural.


If ‘natural’ implies ‘all’ or ‘common’ or is notmeaningful, perhaps the question should not be: “Are there any ‘natural’ rights which can be derived from reasoning?” but “Are there any rights which can be derived from reasoning?”

There are various approaches to reasoning out rights. One approach, pioneered by Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau is to define rights in terms of a social contract. This is also what the contemporary philosopher John Rawls want to do:

“Rawls’ theory is based on a thought experiment in which people, separated by a ‘veil of ignorance’ from knowledge of their particular lot in life (wealth, social status, abilities,…) reflect upon the rules for social life that they would make in advance to bind themselves, whatever their position.” Brenda Almond in P. Singer A Companion to Ethics p.265

If the idea of ‘natural’ is not useful, then rights in the social contract are defined on egoistic, utilitarian, or theological grounds. A citizen will accept the social contract because it is good for him or her; or the greatest good for greatest number of people; or God’s way. Rights defined in strictly utilitarian terms are based on specific objectives and in this sense lack some of the authority of an idea of ‘natural’ rights. As a practical matter, this may leave utilitarian-based rights on shakier ground as the social objectives change. For example, in the US there is currently a debate about the right to bear arms, a right that I believe may have been useful 200 years ago but not today.

In the US Declaration of Independence, the Founding Fathers wrote:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident … that all are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

As self-evident, these truths did not have to be defined by reason. Analogous to geometry, where axioms cannot be proved, rights are taken as social axioms.4 In these arguments, rights are not proven, but provide the basis for generating proofs of political and moral theories. But of course this still leaves us with the question of how self-evident any rights really are.


Sabine, George 1973: A History of Political Theory. Revised by Thomas Thorson. Fourth edition. (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich Publishers, Fort Worth) A fascinating overview. Quite readable.
Somerville, J. and Santoni, R.E. 1963: Social and Political Philosophy: Readings from Plato to Gandhi. (Anchor Books, New York) A good source for extracts of the key basic papers in political philosophy, including: Aristotle, Locke, Hobbes, and others.
Singer, Peter 1993: A Companion to Ethics. (Blackwell)

[I hate footnotes, but these ones fought back when I tried to clobber them! They all refer to the books listed above. Ed.]

1 Brenda Almond, (1991) ‘Rights’. In Peter Singer, (1993) A Companion to Ethics. p.262.
2 Later, Hobbes in his social contract, does define rights for each citizen in terms similar to mine. For Hobbes, the primary right of a each citizen is a claim of security. This claim is guaranteed by the obligation of the absolute monarch to protect. – Hobbes in Somerville (1963) pp.145,168.
3 The argument is more complex than stated above. People by inclination are good to one another. But the obligation to be good is defined through man’s relationship with God. People are God’s property (which is why Locke’s individuals do not have the authorisation to take their own life) and individuals are bound to respect other individuals as God’s works as well (so long as competition is not too great) – Locke. In Somerville (1963). pp.169- 170,178.
4 George Sabine A History of Political Theory p.488.

© A. Chudnow 1994

Alan Chudnow has a philosophy degree from the University of Maryland and is working in the UK.

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