Natural Rights

Class notes for 4 October

The main points

Today we took a quick look at the the tradition of thought that holds that human rights are derived from a natural law. Both Locke and Maritain are exponents while MacDonald is a critic.

According to this tradition, human beings have a natural psychological faculty, reason, that explains both why each person has rights and also why people are expected to respect others’ rights.

I said that this might make sense if you assumed that God was a lawgiver. But without God, the argument amounts to trying to draw a direct inference from the existence of certain natural features to human rights. The problem is that it is just not clear why we should make that inference.

For example, if you take God out of Locke’s argument you wind up without support for the crucial third premise: since no one owns human beings and ownership rights are the only thing the argument posits as a restraint on harming others, the argument cannot show that we should not harm others.


Maritain doesn’t have explicit references to divine laws. But he does assume that human beings have essential natures and that this fact about them performs the double duty of showing that they have rights and enabling them to know that they are supposed to respect others’ rights. Notoriously, people have failed to know that they have rights and they have failed to respect the rights of others. Maritain proposes an analogy with musical instruments: pianos are supposed to be in tune, even though particular ones might not be.

If you assume that human beings are artifacts, that is, created things like pianos, this might fly. Our purpose in life would be given to us by our creator, much as pianos get their purpose from the human beings who make and use them.

But without that assumption, it’s hard to see why we should believe it. MacDonald makes at least two points. First, there isn’t a uniform human essence but, rather, different people are better or worse at different things. Second, even if the ability to understand and respect human rights were a shared natural feature, it would only tell us what we can do rather than what we must do.


We will return to the question of whether moral claims, such as those involving human rights, can or must be derived from something else, such as natural facts, a divine law-giver, or abstract features of reasoning. But we won’t do so until the end of the quarter, when we discuss relativism and Gewirth’s theory.

Hart’s article gives an alternative way of arguing for natural rights: he thinks that he can show that we are committed to believing in natural rights by our other moral beliefs. That won’t amount to proving that we must believe in human rights, but it does seem to show that we can’t keep our moral beliefs in general while abandoning natural rights, which is a way of arguing for natural rights.