The concept of natural
The natural rights of persons
Natural law and property
Rights and claims
Respecting natural rights
The concept of
Etymologically speaking, the word 'right' means that which is ruled, governed or
controlled (from the Latin regere, to rule, to control) by a person. Thus, my
rights are the things that I control. My natural rights are those things that
by nature are under my control: my own body, various parts of which I can
control directly and which naturally or organically are connected to other
parts and organs of
We can also say that a right is a person's power or faculty and
that a natural right is a person's natural power or faculty. However, that is a possibly misleading way of
expressing things. Strictly speaking, a right is a means of power,
which, by being under one's control, gives one a faculty of doing things one
otherwise would lack.
Usually, the word 'right' connotes respectability: it is a
person's respectable means of power. Thus, it is said that one ought to
respect the rights of others. However, in the strict
sense of the word, a right may be respectable or it may not be. For
example, few people believe that the rights of the stronger or legal rights
are per se respectable, yet few people doubt that they are rights.
'Right', then, is in the same category as 'law', which
simply means an order of things (for example, an order of persons) but also
connotes respectability. As with natural
law, it is necessary to distinguish clearly between attempts to
identify the natural rights of persons and attempts to prove (or disprove)
that such rights are respectable.
Obviously, 'natural law' and 'natural rights' are
intimately related concepts. Because natural persons are basic elements of
natural law (in the juristically relevant sense), so are their natural rights.
Consequently, we can describe the natural law as the order of natural
persons and also as the order of natural rights of such persons. The natural rights
of persons are respectable if the natural law is
respectable. Conversely, the natural law is respectable if the natural rights
of natural persons are respectable.
Nowadays we are more likely to speak of 'rights to do'
certain things than of some material things being rights. That is not a fundamental
difference. A 'right to do' is a 'lawful use of one's rights'. A person can use
his rights in different ways. Some of these ways may be lawful
(because they respect the natural law and the rights of others) while other
ways of using his rights may not be lawful. Clearly, it would be inconsistent, from the
perspective of the student of natural law, to hold that lawful and unlawful
uses of one's natural rights are equally respectable. Thus, that you
ought to respect my natural rights (my body) does not imply that you ought to
let me use my body to destroy yours or even to trample on your vegetable
It is advisable, then, to keep in mind that while some
things simply are my natural rights, it does not follow that I simply have the
natural right to do something or other.
There is an easier and more elegant formulation of this
fact. Leave the etymology of 'rights' aside and
substitute the word 'property' whenever you mean 'that which is controlled by
a person'. Likewise, substitute 'natural property' whenever you mean 'that
which is by nature under the control of a person'. Then a person's right to do
something is simply his lawful use of his property. His natural right to do
something is simply his lawful use of his natural property, or else, in a
wider sense, his use of his property in a manner that is consistent with
natural rights of persons
Oneís natural rights are oneís
* freedom (oneís life in the sense of oneís activity
as a separate thinking, speaking, acting and working person);
* life (in the biological sense);
* natural property (oneís body, which is the physical seat of oneís life
These things obviously and naturally ('by nature') are
either directly under one's control or else naturally or organically connected
to things that are under one's direct control. They are really only aspects of oneself. In that sense, a
person is his own natural right. To put this somewhat differently, a person's
powers of self-control or self-determination (being literally embodied in his physical
are his natural rights.
It is possible, of course, to extend one's control or power
over other persons. However, the world and human nature being what they are,
such control is categorically different from self-control. The latter is
exercised immediately, with no need to do something else first. It requires no
threats, promises, machinations, manipulations or coercive
For example, to make my arm rise, I simply raise it. I
cannot make another person's arm rise by simply raising it. To make another
person's arm rise, I first must do some other more or less complicated things.
I can grab his arm and force it upwards; I can apply a sensory stimulus to him
so that he is likely to raise his arm in a spontaneous reflex; or I can find or put
the person in a particular situation and then confront him with a number of
alternatives (involving the prospects of benefits or harms), so that he is
likely to judge that raising his arm is the best option for him.
law and property
Assuming the natural rights are respectable, then all other
rights are respectable if and only if they are established in a manner that
does not violate anyoneís already established respectable rights (be they
natural or established). This is the case specifically for a personís works,
that is, those things that he produced by his own actions. As John Locke
conveniently summed it up: his life, his freedom, and his property (his body
and his works) are a personís rights under the law of nature, which reason
declares to be respectable.
Note that, strictly speaking, apart from one's natural
property (one's body), other property (e.g. one's house,
car, cattle) is not a natural right. That is because one is not by nature in
control of such things. However, control over such things can be achieved
in different ways:
* without violation of anybody's respectable rights; or
* by violating or otherwise interfering with another's respectable rights.
In the former case ('no violation of any person's
respectable rights'), control is established lawfully -- justly, without injustice to
anyone, in ways that respect the natural law. In the other case ('violation of or interference with another's
respectable rights), the rights are established unlawfully, in a way that is not
consistent with the natural law.
Lawfully acquired property is not a natural right in the
strict sense, but we can refer to such property as a right within the natural
law. In that extended sense, lawfully acquired property is a natural right too.
It follows that justice requires that we respect not only
other persons and their natural rights but also their lawfully acquired
property. It does not require that we respect a person's unlawfully required
property (or rights).
Nowadays, rights often are confused
with claims, which often are called 'rights-to'. Thus, many people define 'rights' as 'claims' or 'justifiable
claims'. That is misleading. To say that rights are rights-to is to
suggest that a house is mine by right merely because I have 'a justifiable
claim to it' -- as if the precise nature of what justifies my claim were
However, the fact that I can produce some justification for
claiming X does not prove that I have a right to X. It does not prove that X is
my right. Suppose, for example, that I justify my claim to X by noting that I
need or fervently desire to have X, or that I would have had X if the world or
society had been 'better' than it is. In some circumstances, such
justifications may be appropriate and convincing. For example, if you want to
give part of your property to the needy then you probably would require that
people who appeal to your charity somehow prove their need. If you want to give
away something then you probably would want to make sure that the beneficiary
values it more than any other potential recipient of your benevolence. Clearly,
however, it would be highly misleading to say that such persons have a right to
Properly speaking, a 'right to X' is not itself a right but a
lawful claim to X. Consequently, a claim to X logically can qualify as a
right-to X only if X is one's right. I have a right to my house
because the house is my right, because it is mine within the law.
In the present confusion, that relation is turned on its
head. Instead of saying that a I have a right to what lawfully is mine, it
seems we should say that society should recognise my 'justifiable claim' to
something by giving me legal power over it, regardless of whether it lawfully
belongs to one or more other persons.
The false identification of 'rights' and 'rights-to' has led
to the so-called 'rights explosion' of the second half of the twentieth
century. That explosion followed in the wake of the adoption of the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations in 1948. The Universal
Declaration lists an enormous number of things which human beings
supposedly have a 'right-to'. It does not matter whether those things exist or
not, whether the people who supposedly have a right-to them have produced them
or even have the intention of producing them for themselves. The Declaration
merely presupposes that they are things people justifiably may want or desire
-- in other words that they are 'good things'.
Clearly, however, there is no end to the things people may
want or desire merely because it is somehow better to have them than to lack
them. Hence, there is no limit to the things people may have a right-to. Of
course, with natural rights and the things to which we have right because of
our natural rights, no such multiplication of rights is possible.
That one ought to respect natural
rights (and the natural law) implies that one ought to do so even when that is
not profitable or when it is frustrating in view of the satisfaction of one's
As a person, one is capable of understanding and making the
distinction between what one ought to do out of respect for oneself or others
and what one should do to achieve the highest level of satisfaction of desires.
A moral person not only is capable of understanding and making that
distinction but also is willing to control the ways of satisfying his desires
by checking their compatibility with what he ought to do. Often, 'enlightened
self-interest' is a sufficient motive to induce a person to respect the rights
of others, but there also are many occasions when it is not. 'Enlightened
self-interest' tells you what you can expect to get away with, and that may
involve murder, theft, robbery and fraud.
All attempts to reduce 'ought' to some scheme of
self-centered utility-maximisation, no matter how 'enlightened', must fail. It
may well be true that overall it would be 'better' (in terms of the
want-satisfactions of oneself and others) that everybody respects the natural
rights of others consistently than that some persons on some occasions neglect
to do so. However, that would be to no avail unless it were true that for no
person there is any occasion on which it would be 'better' for him
to play fast and loose with the natural rights of others.
Unfortunately, the actual world is not constituted in that
way. It provides ample opportunities for self-interested utility-maximisers to
increase their own 'utility' in unlawful ways with little or no risk of being
held to account and to assume liability for their acts. 'Enlightened
self-interest' simply means that a person is better equipped to discover and
exploit such opportunities. Throughout the ages, and perhaps never as clearly
as today, enlightened elites have been successful in getting away for long
periods with severe violations of natural rights. They have been, and are,
adept, at exploiting the fact that people are likely to be frustrated when
others stand in the way of their want-satisfaction -- especially when those
others are not capable of offering adequate resistance to such
Of course, that one successfully can get away with violating
the natural rights of others does not prove that one ought not to respect such
rights. Nor does the fact that some people prefer to assume that 'ought' has no
meaning except as a shorthand for 'seeks to maximise utility' prove that it
does not mean what any person with no utilitarian axe to grind knows it means.
If there were a world in which no one ever had to fear any frustration from the
actions of separate other persons acting independently then there would be no
need to distinguish between the concepts of what one ought to do and what
maximises one's utilty. To repeat, ours is not such a world.