Professor John Zumbrunnen, University of Wisconsin-Madison
In both our political discourse and our everyday conversations, we frequently use the language of rights–often without much thought. Often we think and talk in terms of natural rights — rights that we have by virtue of being human beings, rights that are not dependent upon our being citizens of any particular political entity, rights that are not given to us by a government.
In the United States, natural rights language goes back at least to the Declaration of Independence. Though he uses religious language, Jefferson in the famous second paragraph of the Declaration is, in effect, making a natural rights argument. We have certain rights simply because we are human beings. They are natural to us. No person or group or government grants them; and no person or group of government can take them away. That’s what Jefferson means by “inalienable”:
“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.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
Ask students to identify and discuss five key points or principles in this excerpt from the Declaration of Independence:
- natural equality: “all men are created equal” [does this mean they are equal in all ways at all times?]
- natural rights: “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” [how does this fit with the idea of “natural” rights?]
- limited government: “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men” [how do we know when a government has exceeded its proper limits by doing something more than or something other than securing rights?]
- consent of the governed: “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” [what is consent? have you consented to the power of the federal government? your state government? your city government?]
- revolution: “it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government” [when is revolution justified? how do we know when we can or should engage in revolution?]
The idea of natural rights is related the social contract tradition of political thought. Social contract theory tries to determine what makes government legitimate by considering what human life was like in the state of nature. By thinking about what rights and powers humans enjoy in nature, social contract theorists claim to be able to identify the rights that humans give up and the rights they keep when they enter into civil society and agree to obey a government. Here’s a fun video on social contract theory.