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natural rights,political theory that maintains that an individual enters into society with certain basic rights and that no government can deny these rights. The modern idea of natural rights grew out of the ancient and medieval doctrines of natural lawnatural law,
theory that some laws are basic and fundamental to human nature and are discoverable by human reason without reference to specific legislative enactments or judicial decisions.
..... Click the link for more information. , i.e., the belief that people, as creatures of nature and God, should live their lives and organize their society on the basis of rules and precepts laid down by nature or God. With the growth of the idea of individualism, especially in the 17th cent., natural law doctrines were modified to stress the fact that individuals, because they are natural beings, have rights that cannot be violated by anyone or by any society. Perhaps the most famous formulation of this doctrine is found in the writings of John LockeLocke, John
, 1632–1704, English philosopher, founder of British empiricism. Locke summed up the Enlightenment in his belief in the middle class and its right to freedom of conscience and right to property, in his faith in science, and in his confidence in the goodness of
..... Click the link for more information. . Locke assumed that humans were by nature rational and good, and that they carried into political society the same rights they had enjoyed in earlier stages of society, foremost among them being freedom of worship, the right to a voice in their own government, and the right of property. Jean Jacques RousseauRousseau, Jean Jacques
, 1712–78, Swiss-French philosopher, author, political theorist, and composer. Life and Works
Rousseau was born at Geneva, the son of a Calvinist watchmaker.
..... Click the link for more information. attempted to reconcile the natural rights of the individual with the need for social unity and cooperation through the idea of the social contractsocial contract,
agreement or covenant by which men are said to have abandoned the "state of nature" to form the society in which they now live. The theory of such a contract, first formulated by the English philosophers Thomas Hobbes (in the Leviathan,
..... Click the link for more information. . The most important elaboration of the idea of natural rights came in the North American colonies, however, where the writings of Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Adams, and Thomas PainePaine, Thomas,
1737–1809, Anglo-American political theorist and writer, b. Thetford, Norfolk, England. The son of a working-class Quaker, he became an excise officer and was dismissed from the service after leading (1772) agitation for higher salaries.
..... Click the link for more information. made of the natural rights theory a powerful justification for revolution. The classic expressions of natural rights are the English Bill of Rights (1689), the American Declaration of Independence (1776), the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1789), the first 10 amendments to the Constitution of the United States (known as the Bill of Rights, 1791), and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations (1948).
See B. F. Wright, American Interpretation of Natural Law (1931, repr. 1962); L. Strauss, Natural Right and History (1957); O. J. Stone, Human Law and Human Justice (1965); R. Tuck, Natural Rights Theories (1982); L. L. Weinreb, Natural Law and Justice (1987); R. Hittinger, A Critique of the New Natural Law Theory (1988).