natural rights

natural rights, political theory that maintains that an individual enters into society with certain basic rights and that no government can deny these rights. The modern idea of natural rights grew out of the ancient and medieval doctrines of natural law, i.e., the belief that people, as creatures of nature and God, should live their lives and organize their society on the basis of rules and precepts laid down by nature or God. With the growth of the idea of individualism, especially in the 17th cent., natural law doctrines were modified to stress the fact that individuals, because they are natural beings, have rights that cannot be violated by anyone or by any society. Perhaps the most famous formulation of this doctrine is found in the writings of John Locke. Locke assumed that humans were by nature rational and good, and that they carried into political society the same rights they had enjoyed in earlier stages of society, foremost among them being freedom of worship, the right to a voice in their own government, and the right of property. Jean Jacques Rousseau attempted to reconcile the natural rights of the individual with the need for social unity and cooperation through the idea of the social contract. The most important elaboration of the idea of natural rights came in the North American colonies, however, where the writings of Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Adams, and Thomas Paine made of the natural rights theory a powerful justification for revolution. The classic expressions of natural rights are the English Bill of Rights (1689), the American Declaration of Independence (1776), the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1789), the first 10 amendments to the Constitution of the United States (known as the Bill of Rights, 1791), and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations (1948).

See B. F. Wright, American Interpretation of Natural Law (1931, repr. 1962); L. Strauss, Natural Right and History (1957); O. J. Stone, Human Law and Human Justice (1965); R. Tuck, Natural Rights Theories (1982); L. L. Weinreb, Natural Law and Justice (1987); R. Hittinger, A Critique of the New Natural Law Theory (1988).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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