To understand our Constitution, a person must understand the theory of “Natural Rights.” Natural rights are the rights that all humans possess merely by being born. This theory began with European philosophers in the 17th and 18th centuries, men like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Thomas Paine.
These men believed that denying a person his natural rights would be absurd, like expecting a carnivore to give up meat. In his natural state, according to Hobbes, man’s life consists entirely of liberties and not at all of laws – “It followeth, that in such a condition, every man has the right to every thing; even to one another’s body. And therefore, as long as this natural Right of every man to every thing endureth, there can be no security to any man… of living out the time, which Nature ordinarily allow men to live.”
This would lead inevitably to a situation known as the “war of all against all”, in which human beings kill, steal and enslave others in order to stay alive, due to their natural lust for “Gain”, “Safety” and “Reputation”. Hobbes reasoned that this world of chaos created by unlimited rights was highly undesirable, since it would cause human life to be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. As such, if humans wish to live peacefully they must give up some of their natural rights and create moral obligations in order to establish political and civil society. This is one of the earliest formulations of the theory of government known as the social contract.
Like Hobbes, Locke was a major social contract thinker. He said that man’s natural rights are life, liberty, and property. He greatly influenced the American Revolutionary War with his writings of natural rights.
According to Locke there are three natural rights:
- Life- everyone is entitled to live once they are created.
- Liberty- everyone is entitled to do anything they want to so long as it doesn’t conflict with the first right.
- Estate- everyone is entitled to own all they create or gain through gift or trade so long as it doesn’t conflict with the first two rights.
According to Locke, the social contract is a contract between a being or beings of power and their people or followers. The King makes the laws to protect the 3 natural rights. The people may not agree on the laws, but they have to follow them. The people can be prosecuted and/or killed if they break these laws. If the King does not follow these rules, he can be overthrown.
Thomas Paine (1731–1809) further elaborated on natural rights in his influential work Rights of Man (1791), emphasizing that rights cannot be granted by any charter because this would legally imply they can also be revoked and under such circumstances they would be reduced to privileges:
It is a perversion of terms to say that a charter gives rights. It operates by a contrary effect — that of taking rights away. Rights are inherently in all the inhabitants; but charters, by annulling those rights, in the majority, leave the right, by exclusion, in the hands of a few. … They…consequently are instruments of injustice.
The fact therefore must be that the individuals themselves, each in his own personal and sovereign right, entered into a contract with each other to produce a government: and this is the only mode in which governments have a right to arise, and the only principle on which they have a right to exist.
It is for these reasons that our Constitution was built upon the “Natural Rights” theory.
- Men are endowed by certain rights by their creator.
- Men constitute governments in order that they may protect those rights from others.
- That they grant powers to that government so that it may function.
Governments cannot grant rights, they can only deny rights and liberties from one group, while allowing others to retain them. In a future post, I will examine some of how this works, and why certain things cannot be rights under this theory.