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