Rights, to quote the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “are entitlements (not) to perform certain actions, or (not) to be in certain states; or entitlements that others (not) perform certain actions or (not) be in certain states.” Some rights are civil and some natural. Civil rights are those granted to individuals by a particular society which may or may not enforce them. Since civil rights are contingent on a society, they may no longer apply once one is outside that society and may also disappear should that society break apart, choose to no longer grant them, and so on. But natural rights are rights which are inalienable: we can’t be separated from them no matter what. As the Declaration of Independence reads, “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.” But how can we make sense of these natural rights? Well, we could follow the Declaration and claim they come from God who, unlike any contingent human society, is a necessarily existing being who can insure we always have them. But if we want a naturalistic account of such rights, we can follow the notion that we have them by virtue of being humans rather than by virtue of being citizens of a certain society. This appeal to humanity, while common, requires further explanation. One way to find this explanation is by turning to the moral theory known as natural law theory.
The origins of natural law theory can be traced back to ancient philosophers such as Heraclitus, Plato, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, and Cicero who employed ideas central to it. It was then developed by medieval thinkers such as Tertullian, Justinian, and St. Augustine. But perhaps the first comprehensive formulation of the theory appears in the writings of the medieval philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas. Natural law theory is then subsequently developed over the centuries in various directions, many theistic, some more secular in nature. Figures as diverse as Moses Maimonides, Francisco Suarez, Thomas Hobbes, Hugo Grotius, and John Locke made substantial philosophical contributions to its development. And the tradition continues to thrive in contemporary philosophy, political action, law, and religion. The details of this diverse history are complex. But the basic ideas are straightforward and powerful. According to most versions of natural law theory, we begin by recognizing certain good potentials of human nature (to be rational, social, loving, friendly, creative, free, responsible, kind, etc.). This recognition can come about just using our reason—we don’t need revelation from God or any mysterious capacities or talents. We then judge actions to be right if they facilitate the actualization of these potentials and wrong if they thwart them. Action can then be both guided and judged by articulating natural moral laws that prescribe how we should act rather than just describe how we do act. These laws, being grounded in our shared humanity, hope to be universal (they would apply everywhere at all times), objective (not only a matter of personal or cultural opinion), and intelligible (capable of being rationally understood either immediately or after careful consideration).
With this account in place we can say that natural rights will be those things that are essential to us if we are to realize our good natural potentials. Natural rights, just like natural laws, are not contingent on the decisions of a particular society like civil rights are. Rather, they are inalienable and necessary if our natural potentials are to be actualized at all. So if we follow this vision of morality we can say that natural rights will be those rights that (1) entitle us to the goods that we read off of human nature (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for example) and (2) find their justification as inalienable with reference to our common humanity with its universal, objective, and intelligible potentials. These rights, these entitlements, are seen as essential to us if we are to have a fighting chance at actualizing what is best in us. Naturally, humans have articulated them, expressed them in different languages, institutionalized them, etc. So the expression of these rights are made up by humans. But these expressions are made up with reference to objective, universal, and intelligible traits of human nature that we discover. So the rights are human creations that refer to things we didn’t create. Thus they are natural rather than artificial in their reference. This would distinguish them from, say, the legal creations of the Nazis that were misrepresenting reality and contributing to evil insofar as they were thwarting, rather than facilitating, the good natural potentials of Jews and so many others deemed as inferior. In any case, you see we have an account of human nature and natural laws first. Once we have that, we can articulate natural rights that extend entitlements to us that will help us actualize what is best in our nature and live up to these laws.
Of course, there are plenty of issues with rights in general and natural rights in particular. Which rights do we have? Which are civil and which are natural? What exactly is human nature and which potentials are good? Do we even have a nature? If rights are supposed to be self-evident then why do so many people fail to see this self-evidence in so many situations marked by racism and sexism? Which rights are negative (right to non-interference) and which positive (right to positive assistance)? Can we really distinguish between negative and positive rights? What practical problems must we face if, for example, we think people should have a right to a fair wage and a living? How do various rights clash with other rights and with the various institutions and practices we have? These are just a few of the questions that can be asked here.