What Are Natural Rights?

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“We hold these truths to be self-evident, 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.”

– Declaration of Independence, July 4th, 1776

What are natural rights? How are they enforced? Are they given to us when we’re born? Or does the government decide who gets them and who doesn’t? Who decides what a natural right is? Is it the people? The president? Or those in Congress?

Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence

Thomas Jefferson wrote that all men are created equal in the Declaration of Independence. Interestingly, he said that we all have rights given to us by God that can’t be taken away. That is an incredibly poignant statement that we often take for granted.

But in this opening line, Thomas Jefferson is touching upon something that’s been presented by many a scholar before him, the idea that there are certain rights everyone has, regardless of whether or not the government acknowledges it. These are considered natural rights, and every single person, no matter their race, sex, or orientation, has them. 

Who Has Natural Rights?

Natural rights are rights given to every single person in the world. These rights cannot be changed through legislation or due to cultural differences.

Declaration Of Independence
Declaration Of Independence.

In America, our Declaration of Independence stipulated that every person has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This means that if a government is just, almost everyone should have access to these rights. It also implies that a government would be considered unjust if it doesn’t protect these rights. These rights suggest a completely level playing field. No one should automatically be given the right to govern (or work any other job) because they were born into a certain family. 

In America, the Founding Fathers established systems to protect individual rights by limiting government power. The United States Constitution protects many legal rights, but the document also aims to protect the overall rights to freedom and life. The installation of a checks and balances system also limits the amount of power an individual branch of government holds. 

Who Created Natural Rights?

While some may think that natural rights originated in the United States, the concept of universal, inalienable rights was present in ancient Greece. Natural rights were cited during the Age of Enlightenment to challenge the idea of the divine rule of kings. The philosophical and political idea of a social contract (the idea that a group of people opts into a governing body) arose here.

Photo of the Parthenon
The concept of inalienable rights was present in ancient Greece.

When observing specific examples of natural rights, you’ll notice they look a lot like human rights. And while, indeed, many of the ideas overlap, it’s important to note that natural rights are not a standard set by a governing body. Someone has the right to freedom or life, even if the government hasn’t passed any laws protecting it.

Can They Be Changed?

While there may be variance over history about who natural rights apply to, there is a general theme of every person having the right to life and the right to freedom. There will, of course, be questions about what individual actions would be considered a natural right (such as whether or not political uprising is a right), but it’s fair to say there isn’t a way to change these rights.

Can They Be Taken Away?

Yes, in very specific cases, the government can take them away. This is typically what happens when someone is sent to prison. Because they’ve violated the rights of others (by committing murder, for example), that individual loses all claim to their natural rights. Depending on the punishment of the crime, this loss of rights may be temporary, or it may be permanent. A just government will typically aim to take as few of people’s rights away as possible (since a government’s job is to protect people’s rights).

What’s the Difference Between Natural Rights and Legal Rights?

Natural rights are not enforced through a certain law or other form of legislation. While laws may protect certain individuals’ natural rights (such as the abolition of slavery in the United States), there isn’t an overarching ‘freedom’ law. This is a concept that is protected through the courts rather than legislated.

Lady Justice
Legal rights include the right to vote.

Natural rights also exist if there’s no government. If a remote group of people had no unified government, they would still have the right to life and freedom, even though there aren’t any laws saying so. 

A legal right, however, can only exist in a governing body. Legal rights would include the right to vote, any copyright laws, or laws banning institutions such as segregation. While these rights are arguably just as important as natural rights, they can also vary from culture to culture. 

For example, while the United States has decided an individual has the right to own their product or idea without the worry of theft, another country might not police intellectual property rights. It would, therefore, not grant their people such a right.

The government can also alter legal rights at any time. The United States could decide tomorrow that only people born in New York are citizens, and everyone else has to now apply for citizenship or get deported. While an extreme example, this is why it’s important to know the difference between a natural right and a legal one.

A legal right must always be protected. Even if we think it’s safe, there’s a chance that someone could take it away from us if given enough power.

In Conclusion

Natural rights are integral to anyone living a happy, fruitful life. While most people in the United States don’t have to worry about losing their natural rights, it’s important to be aware of the people who might not have the same luxury. It may not be possible for one person to stop all the human rights abuses in the world, but through supporting organizations who have the same aim or electing people who want to help, we can begin to close that gap.

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