Are Natural Rights Self-Evident?

June 5, 2015

There is a certain conviction in the American tradition, inherited from the modern philosophical and Western religious traditions, that we have self-evident or natural rights. These rights which are thought to be embedded in nature and self-evident to reason are enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and in the American Constitution. The purpose of our government is to protect these core inherent rights. This is how we see ourselves and how we argue over political issues.

The irony, however, is that the notion of natural or self-evident rights is fraught with problems. In this chapter of Beyond Liberty Alone, I explore the modern attempts to justify the naturalness of rights and begin to expose the cracks in the foundation.

Chapter 2 The Natural Source of Rights Debated

Why is it people believe rights are self-evident and natural?

In fact, many people don’t bother to think about the basis of those claims and simply repeat a truth they assert to be self-evident. Americans know that the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution, and the Bill of Rights all protect our self-evident rights. But they don’t think deeply about what provides the foundation of those claims. For many people, rights are self-evident simply because they are part of our American tradition. So where did the idea of natural rights come from, anyway?

The claim that rights are self-evident or natural is an idea that took shape in its modern form in the seventeenth century in the writings of political philosophers such as Hugo Grotius, Thomas Hobbes, Samuel von Pufendorf, Algernon Sidney, John Locke, and a host of other lesser known writers. The idea had predecessors in the classical Greek philosophical tradition and in the Christian synthesis of Greek and Christian thought in thinkers such as Aquinas. Our modern ideas of rights were developed in a particular historical context to address a particular set of pressing problems. If today some of these seventeenth-century thinkers seem obscure and irrelevant except in university political philosophy classes, then we should recall the fact that America’s conception of natural rights goes back to the late eighteenth century. Jefferson himself  penned the Declaration of Independence in June 1776, and he and other founders were familiar with and were influenced by the writings of seventeenth-century philosophers on rights. Jefferson, for example, quoted John Locke, Samuel von Pufendorf, and David Hume in his early legal writings, and many think Locke in particular was of critical importance to Jefferson when writing the Declaration.2 To put things in perspective a bit, it is important to realize that Jefferson was twice as close in time to John Locke as we are in time to Jefferson; yet Jefferson still obviously holds enormous symbolic influence over us two hundred years later. The ideas of Jefferson, and the other founders, of course, did not emerge out of their heads. They stand in a tradition reaching back into the early modern thinking about rights. The ideas that we have today about rights, governments, God, religion, and morality were in many ways shaped by discussions that emerged in that century. Contrary to how Americans sometimes think, history did not start with the Declaration of Independence.

The proposition that certain human rights are natural and self-evident emerged out of a European intellectual tradition that was focused on proving that there was a “law of nature” or “natural law” by which human beings should live. This was an idea that reached back to Greek philosophical ideas in antiquity and had been taken up into Judaism and Christianity as well, which originally did not have the same notion of a “natural law.”3 This law of nature was understood to be the common moral foundation for how human beings should live with one another. Natural law was thought to be discoverable by human reason and thus accessible to all people who had reached the age of maturity, regardless of their nationality, religion, geographic location, or historical period. Knowledge of the natural law thus did not depend on access in time or place to God’s revelation, which was thought in the West to have been dispensed first to only the Jews via Moses (Old Testament) before it was published more broadly through Paul’s mission to the gentiles (Gospel, New Testament). In the modern view, even those peoples who lived before God’s revelation or geographically distant from the land of Israel, the place of God’s revelation, were capable of discerning the foundations for the moral law.

You can download a copy of Chapter 2 of Beyond Liberty Alone here: Are rights natural and self-evident?