World History 2 96 - 7.1.2 Natural Rights

The topic of natural rights, rights possessed by all human beings, such as the right to life and liberty, formed the focus of many philosophical treatises and conversations in the eighteenth century. Based on the premise that all people have fundamental and inalienable rights, rights that cannot be revoked or rescinded by human laws, the concept of natural rights originated not in the Enlightenment but in far older traditions of justice and natural law. In the ancient Persian tradition of Zoroastrianism, for example, the concept of asha, meaning “God’s will,” connoted the unchangeable law that emanates from the divine and governs the universe. Although many ancient religious and philosophical traditions developed interpretations of natural law, European Enlightenment thinkers transformed such ideas into a political system, which was novel at the time. The growing emphasis on reason and the desire to improve human life in the eighteenth century led Enlightenment philosophers to envision political systems based on natural rights, rather than the divine right of kings or traditional Christian social hierarchies.

One of the first Enlightenment thinkers to tackle the issue of natural rights was the English philosopher John Locke, who argued that people have fundamental rights to life, liberty, and property. In his influential work of political philosophy, Two Treatises of Government, he argued that all people are born in a state of freedom and that government should exist only by their consent, a principle called popular sovereignty. Although Locke and his European contemporaries asserted the inherent equality of all humans, their interpretation of equality is somewhat paradoxical, since in practice they supported the unequal institutions of colonialism and the Atlantic slave trade that deprived all but White men of their natural rights.

Link to Learning

The text of John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government is presented by Project Gutenberg. Published in 1690, this text establishes Locke’s position on civil society. Chapters VII and VIII, in particular, explain Locke’s interpretations of the relationship between natural rights and civil society.

Like Locke and his contemporaries in England, key figures of the French Enlightenment also debated the scope of natural rights. François-Marie d’Arouet, more commonly known by his pen name Voltaire, was an especially vigorous advocate of intrinsic rights and freedoms. An outspoken critic of the Catholic Church, the aristocracy, and the French monarchy, he was particularly focused on defending religious toleration, freedom of speech, and the innate utility of reason, which he did in such works as Treatise on Tolerance and Republican Ideas. In his most famous work, the 1759 satire Candide, Voltaire mocked both established religion and secular government. His contemporary Montesquieu also wrote extensively about the relationship between laws and rights. Montesquieu was principally concerned with the concept of political liberty and enforcing the separation of a state’s legislative, executive, and judicial powers as a means of keeping the government in check, which he discussed in his 1748 book The Spirit of the Laws.

The tension between state authority and the right of individuals to make decisions for themselves likewise inspired the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose contributions to Enlightenment philosophy included his influential treatise The Social Contract. Dating to the era of Plato and Socrates in the fourth and fifth centuries BCE and to the second-century BCE Buddhist text The Mahāvastu, the social contract is an idea centered on the belief that individuals surrender their natural rights to the state, which is then charged with the task of maintaining and protecting those rights. In his assessment of natural rights, Rousseau contends that the formation of human communities makes interdependence necessary and requires reconciling individual freedoms with the sovereignty of the state. Individuals must be free to do as they choose, but the government must also be able to restrict people’s actions in order to protect the rights of all. He also discussed the theory of the general will, a concept by which a state can be legitimate only if it is guided by the will of the people as a whole, rather than the whims of an elite minority.

Whereas Locke, Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Rousseau reinforced the distinction between inalienable rights and the authority of the state, some philosophers of the era, such as Jeremy Bentham and Edmund Burke, cast doubt on the very existence of natural rights. Bentham was an English lawyer known for his adoption of utilitarianism, a political philosophy that emphasized the goal of achieving the greatest good for the greatest number of people. He contended that rights came into being only as a creation of the state and did not exist outside the confines of civil society. Even if a government did not do what the general will wished or disregarded the supremacy of natural law, Bentham wrote, disputing its legitimacy could lead only to chaos and lawlessness.

Like Bentham, the Irish philosopher Edmund Burke also rejected the concept of popular sovereignty. Although he did not dispute the existence of natural law, he argued that natural rights became irrelevant with the formation of civil society, since only people of virtue and good judgment should be permitted to exercise political power. They would serve in the best interests of the people, who, according to Burke, would naturally give up their selfish desires and individual will in the interests of the state.

Although the Enlightenment produced a wide range of opinions about the origins and meaning of natural rights, it also enabled people to think more critically about their relationship with the state and the legitimacy of revolution. While some thinkers such as Burke and Bentham defended the supremacy of the state over individual rights, others such as Locke and Voltaire championed the integrity of natural rights and believed that political liberty could not be interfered with. As the argument continued during the Enlightenment period, it expanded into discussions of social contract theory that focused more specifically on the ethics and legitimacy of law and the political order.

Dueling Voices

Enlightenment Perspectives on Natural Rights

In the following excerpts, you will read two different perspectives on natural rights. The first excerpt, from a treatise written by seventeenth-century English philosopher John Locke, asserts Locke’s claim that people are naturally free and possess rights that are independent of laws imposed by any society. In the second, a late eighteenth-century treatise written in response to the declarations of rights associated with the French Revolution, English philosopher Jeremy Bentham asserts that such rights cannot exist without government and laws. As you read these two sources, consider the differing ways in which they each describe the existence of rights beyond the reach of the state.

The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions: for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker; all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order, and about his business; they are his property, whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another’s pleasure: and being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us, that may authorize us to destroy one another, as if we were made for one another’s uses, as the inferior ranks of creatures are for ours. Every one, as he is bound to preserve himself, and not to quit his station willfully, so by the like reason, when his own preservation comes not in competition, ought he, as much as he can, to preserve the rest of mankind, and may not, unless it be to do justice on an offender, take away, or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of the life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another.

—John Locke, Two Treatises of Government

How stands the truth of things? That there are no such things as natural rights—no such things as rights anterior to [existing before] the establishment of government—no such things as natural rights opposed to, in contradistinction to, legal: that the expression is merely figurative; that when used, in the moment you attempt to give it a literal meaning it leads to error, and to that sort of error that leads to mischief—to the extremity of mischief. . . . Natural rights is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense,—nonsense upon stilts. But this rhetorical nonsense ends in the old strain of mischievous nonsense for immediately a list of these pretended natural rights is given, and those are so expressed as to present to view legal rights. And of these rights, whatever they are, there is not, it seems, any one of which any government can, upon any occasion whatever, abrogate [do away with] the smallest particle.

—Jeremy Bentham, Anarchical Fallacies

  • How do Locke and Bentham’s views of natural rights differ?
  • How might their differing views influence their perceptions of the role of the state?
  • With which view—if either—do you agree? Why?

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax