On Natural Rights

Godfrey Kneller

~1,300 words


Last modified: September 22nd, 12,017 HE

TO understand political power right, and derive it from its original, we must consider, what state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man.

John Locke, Two Treatises of Government

Summer is drawing to a close and for one reason or another I’ve been bitten by something of a politics bug. I’ve had a few thoughts that I found quite interesting, but they need some development. The best way I know of developing an incipient idea is to record it; to write it down. The quest for clarity that should be one of the first goals of any writing will serve to coalesce a group of disparate thoughts into a single, eloquent and cohesive idea. Publishing those thoughts further serves to motivate the author to hold those ideas to the degree of rigour they might consider a reader to, in order to head off criticism in advance.

The end of this is that I am going to jot down these thoughts of mine in a series of posts, each one building on the previous ones, and going on indefinitely until I feel done. Who knows how many that’ll end up being, but not knowing is half the fun. Maybe what I am going to say is utter tripe, but equally perhaps somebody will find it interesting, even if that somebody is me in a few years’ time. Or perhaps someone will tell me it’s tripe, and then at least I shall know.

In this first post I will explain what I mean by natural rights, which I’ll use as a building block in the future posts. This post, in particular, might come across as teaching to suck eggs, but I think it’s still important to ensure we’re both on the same page before anything else.

With that said, I’ll begin:

What is a right?

In this piece, and future ones, I mean the following when I say right: any thing which an individual is able to do. To say an individual has a right to $ x $ is to say that the individual is able to do $ x $—that is, they will not be stopped, restricted, held up or censured. Stopped by whom, I will get to in time.

What are natural rights?

One of the summits of philosophic thought is captured—most poetically—in the preamble to the United States Declaration of Independence: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights. However, I disagree with the follow-on statement that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Whether you consider Man’s Creator to be some knowable or unknowable god (or gods), or just the chance combination of circumstances that allowed life (and our own apparently-unique sapience) to emerge, or any other notion under the sun, I believe that we can all agree that this producer has endowed us with at least one set of rights: what I will refer to as natural rights.

I do not here use the term natural rights in the Lockean sense, or the Jeffersonian—I do not include Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness as part of this stripped-down core set of rights. Rather, by natural rights, I mean any right that is not imparted by any legislation, is not subject to any judicial review and cannot be realistically ignored—any right that exists independent of human consent. In Hobbes’ state of nature, these are the only rights. The person who is able to take something from another—that is, they are able to do so by virtue of being bigger/stronger/more devious/cuter/in a better position/etc.—has the natural right to do so. All individuals who have the ability to do something, ignoring any imposed social customs or legal fetters, have a natural right to do so.

Another way to formulate this is that a natural right is a title to be bestowed only upon those rights that, if exercised independent of the company of Man and His societies, will experience no restriction and incur no punishment from the Universe. For example, the right to Life cannot be considered a natural right. If there were only two humans in the world and one decided to kill the other, and was physically more able to do so than the other was able to defend themselves, there would be no restriction of or punishment for the act. The rock would not fly out of the attacker’s hand before caving in the victim’s skull; the attacker would not spontaneously combust after doing the deed.

The interjection here from almost any religion would be the same: there would be a punishment, but a posthumous one—the murderer would be punished for their sins for all eternity, whilst the victim would be laughing it up in Heaven. I don’t consider one’s belief in such divine judgement to harm my definition of a natural right: all one would have to do is amend the no punishment clause to read no punishment in this life, to say nothing of the next life that may or may not be waiting.

A third and final formulation, and perhaps the simplest, is that a natural right is any right that is shared between us and a non-sapient creature. All else is a uniquely human construct.

The natural rights, then, can be enumerated as two opposite pairs and one complementary:

This sounds like the worst thing ever

Indeed. The weaker would be preyed on by the stronger, who would in turn be preyed on by the smarter, and so on. In short, nobody would be having a great time of it. This is the condition of statelessness. I use that term not in it’s usual, emotionally- and morally-loaded sense, but merely as a statement of fact: a person who has no state. What, then, do I precisely mean by the term state? This will be the topic of my next piece.


  1. Under this antagonistic pair of rights, giving someone else an item can be considered as a weak exercising of the right to keep on the part of the giver and, due to the superior position afforded by the giver’s acquiescence, an overpowering exercising of the right to take on the receiver’s part. As in the state of nature the giving of a gift would presuppose the keeper’s superiority in some way to the taker (else the item would not have been given by, but taken from), the state that exists between the two parties after the transaction is one of a weak exercising of the right to take on the part of the former giver (due to a presumed lack of desire to do so) and thus a strong exercising of the right to keep on the part of the recipient. ↩︎

  2. The right to state both continues the rough rhyme I had going, and is also the more generalised right than that to speak: even a mute can express their thoughts through non-verbal means. ↩︎