Natural Rights Research Paper

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John Locke’s natural rights theory is derived from what is called natural law. It maintains that individuals enter society with basic rights, such as the right to life and liberty, which cannot be abrogated by government. According to this  ethical  theory,  the  moral  standards  that  govern human  behavior are, in some sense, objectively derived from the nature of human  beings. Naturalism is thus a philosophical position that attempts to explain all phenomena and account for all values by means of strictly natural categories, as opposed to supernatural categories (i.e., God).

According to Locke, the state of nature can be understood properly as men living together according to reason. This  differs from Thomas  Hobbes’s conception of the state of nature, which is characterized in Leviathan (1651) as chaos and “war of all against all.” For Locke, “reason, which is the 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” (1690). This natural moral law is the recognition of individuals’ value and their virtue as God’s creatures.

The  philosophical implication  of  Locke’s  state  of nature is a set of natural laws—the law of opinion, civil law, and divine law. The law of opinion is society’s reflection of natural standards for happiness. As Locke outlines in Two Treatises of Government (1690), through nature or reason  we  discover moral  rules  mirroring  God’s  law. Because the natural world is created by God, and because God  associates actions with  pleasure (“good”) or  pain (“evil”)—touching fire, for  example, causes pain—the study of nature allows us to learn morality and to understand “the good.” Through an analysis of a priori morality and of “justice,” the commonwealth sets civil law, enforced by police and courts, and supplements nature with  a rational law-based social theory. Locke defines ethics as involving voluntary conformity to or disagreement  with  rational  rules or  moral  law; conformity is known as virtue. Divine law reveals what to do, or avoid doing, to achieve success in the afterlife. It is the standard for all law, and is revealed through reason or revelation. Its importance is that unlike the law of opinion or civil law, it provides a basis for individual morality.

Locke’s natural law implies natural rights with associated duties. Individuals have rights, and their duties are defined as protecting these rights, as well as the rights of others. One natural right that concerned Locke was the right to own private property, a right grounded in moral law. Here, Locke was concerned with relations of body (self ), labor, and property. Locke’s position, derived from Hobbes,  was that  private ownership’s  jurisdiction  was granted through labor, as property is conceived of as the self in its extended form in the material world. When labor is applied to common property, the laborer came to own this property via their labor. Through this mixing of self and  its interactions with  the  environment  (i.e., a plowed field), the body’s acts are revealed, leaving traces on the material world. Through the combination of labor and common property, private property emerges. Consequently, property comes to  include lives, liberty, and estates.

Moreover, Locke was concerned  with  freedom to worship and to have one’s voice heard in the government. Locke wrote about human  rights’ inalienable character and argued that a political society rests on the individual’s consent to having laws made and enforced by society, as ruled by the majority. Through  consent we assume the responsibilities and  duties  of  citizenship. Additionally, Locke located the sovereign in the legislature—the representatives of the  majority of people—and in  a system based on divisions of power. Thus, property’s preservation and inalienable human rights become the impetus behind social laws and government, and subsequently, civil government and political society.

One of the main natural-rights arguments made today is the argument for a “right to life.” This holds that at a minimum  level, the individual should be free from any coercion (or “harm”) that might hinder this right (such as murder). The position is based on both beneficence and a respect for human  worth and dignity. Additionally, the right to control one’s property is invoked, especially when property rights are defined as including the right to one’s own body. However, the “right to life” and the “right to property” can be seen as contradictory, particularly when the latter is used to justify abortion.

Critiques of natural rights are found within discussions of individual liberty. The argument that a right exists that coincides with the nature of human beings to be free was challenged by utilitarian theories, which advocate that individuals should be free because their freedom is somehow useful for society. Émile Durkheim  also presents a critique of natural rights, arguing that rights are granted by society.


  1. Beauchamp, Tom , and LeRoy Walters. 1994. Contemporary Issues in Bioethics. 4th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
  2. Bentham, Jeremy. [1789] 1970. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, J. H. Burns and H. L. A. Hart. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  3. Hobbes, [1651] 1982. Leviathan, ed. C. B. MacPherson. London: Penguin Group.
  4. Locke, J [1690] 1952. Second Treatise of Government, ed. Thomas P. Peardon. New York: Liberal Arts Press.
  5. Locke, J [1690] 1988. Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

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